The bombshells continue in the federal corruption trial against former Sen. Jon Woods, who federal prosecutors allege took kickbacks from from state money he guided to Ecclesia College and a mental health agency.
On Wednesday, testimony indicated that former Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux (later Chief of Staff for Gov. Asa Hutchinson and now a lobbyist) may have been implicated in the broader scheme to direct money to Ecclesia College. A director of a Hot Springs development district testified that he was pressured by Lamoureux approve faulty applications for grant money to be sent to Ecclesia.
Yesterday, legislative working papers previously made exempt from the FOIA were made public indicating that Woods had attempted to insert himself in the drafting of the ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana in a manner that would have directed yet more money to Ecclesia. The Arkansas Blog has reported on this scheme several times. David Couch, a lawyer who was a key player in the push for the medical marijuana amendment, stated on the record that Woods had participated in the drafting of the initiated amendment and that an initial draft by Woods had included a provision to direct some proceeds from a marijuana tax to colleges with a particular work-study designation that Ecclesia has (in the end, the provision did not wind up in the amendment). Ecclesia is the only college in the state with such a designation, so this would have funneled money directly to the tiny religious school in Springdale.
The working papers made public at the trial yesterday appear to confirm the scheme described by Couch’s statements and Max Brantley’s reporting.
Matthew Miller, assistant director of the Bureau of Legislative Research testified yesterday that he prepared a draft resolution at Woods’ request to legalize medical marijuana, reports Doug Thompson at the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, who has been offering excellent coverage of the trial from the courtroom. There was essentially no chance that the legislature was going to refer a medical marijuana amendment, so Woods was presumably using the resources of BLR to draft language that he could then bring to Couch (I just spoke with Couch, who said that was his understanding of what happened). Further testimony from Miller this morning indicates that this was indeed why Woods brought the matter to BLR.
Slipped into the requested BLR language, as well as Woods’ draft suggestions to Couch, was a provision that some of the tax revenues from medical marijuana would go to grants for federally recognized “work colleges,” an unusual designation that seven liberal arts colleges in the U.S. have, as part of the “Work Colleges Consortium.”
According to the consortium website, “Work Colleges offer students enhanced learning opportunities by integrating Work, Learning and Service throughout their college experience. Students earn a valuable degree plus important life and professional skills.” The program is distinct from the need-based federal work-study program; at work colleges, the program is for all students, who typically work 8 to 15 hours per week and receive support from the college for their work and integration of relevant jobs into their academic study. It sounds like a nice program (amusingly, some of the consortium members are polar opposites of Ecclesia, such as the famously hippie college Warren Wilson).
But the key for Woods’ alleged schemes to funnel money to Ecclesia wasn’t the program itself, it was the fact that it was such a rare designation. Because Ecclesia, which joined the consortium in 2005, was the only “work college” in Arkansas, Woods could try to push state funds exclusively to Ecclesia without ever naming the school in legislation — or a constitutional amendment. For example, in 2015, Woods managed to get a bill passed that created an account at the state’s Department of Higher Education for grants only available to colleges in the “Work Colleges Consortium.” A slush fund, in other words, just for Ecclesia.
Ultimately, no state money was budgeted to that account, but this was the account that Woods aimed to use to route marijuana money to Ecclesia. In the draft amendment that Woods worked on with Miller and Couch, he tried to include a provision that would designate a certain amount of the tax revenue generated from medical marijuana to go into that fund.
Couch said that Woods, a longtime supporter of medical marijuana, had expressed interest in helping with an amendment as far back as 2013 or 2014. When Couch read the provision about the “work college fund,” he was perplexed. He had no idea what a “work college” was. He investigated and realized that this just meant money would be going straight to Ecclesia. At that time, Couch had no idea there was an alleged kickback scheme involving the college, but he quickly concluded that this was a remarkably narrow and irrelevant use of the revenues. The provision was nixed from the amendment. Couch said that there were numerous efforts by various lawmakers to include narrowly tailored handouts to pet projects or special interests and at the time he chalked this up as an attempt at run-of-the-mill political grease. Couch said that in addition to wanting the revenues to go to a broader set of educational institutions, he was particularly leery of a handout to a “church that was probably fundamentally opposed to what I was doing.”
In the end, the amendment that actually made it to the ballot designated half of the revenues to a broad fund for vocational and technical training, with other revenues designated to various departments and to the state’s general revenue. The General Assembly later passed a law altering the distribution of revenues, doing away with those designations and sending all money to general revenue after the operating expenses for the medical marijuana bureaucracy are paid for (the ability for the legislature to change the distribution of revenues was, ahem, baked into the amendment).
According to testimony yesterday, Thompson reports, Ecclesia was in financial distress and in dire need of a windfall of state money. The college received $700,000 in state grants between 2013 and 2014, with Woods responsible for directing $500,000 of that via an alleged kickback scheme.
Two alleged co-conspirators, Oren Paris III, president of the college, and former state Rep. Micah Neal, have already pleaded guilty. Also on trial is Randell Shelton Jr., a friend of Woods and Paris who allegedly participated in the scheme. Paris pleaded guilty less than a week before the trial began, suddenly flipping from co-defendant to cooperating with the government.
Thompson reports that testimony yesterday from BLR staff and legislative working papers also suggested that Woods had worked on other bills to aid the college’s bottom line:
Staff testified Woods directed them to work with Paris on higher education bills and with Shelton on bills on recycling roofing shingles. Shelton, Paris and Woods held a financial interest in a shingle recycling business, court records show.
One hopes that federal prosecutors presented the evidence on Woods’ alleged marijuana shenanigans knowing that the story would hit the papers on 4/20.