In the ongoing federal corruption trial against former state Sen. Jon Woods, the prosecution yesterday presented text messages, emails, and bank records that provided more details about the alleged kickback scheme involving Woods, consultant Randell Shelton Jr., Ecclesia College president Oren Paris III, and former Rep. Micah Neal. Neal and Paris have already pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the prosecution.
The text messages demonstrate the efforts by the alleged co-conspirators to influence other lawmakers to throw public money toward Ecclesia, a tiny Christian college in Springdale, Doug Thompson reports for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. These efforts were apparently successful, as multiple legislators other than Woods and Neal directed tens of thousands of dollars via the state’s General Improvement Fund (GIF) grants toward questionable spending on Eccleisa. Most of these legislators remain in the General Assembly.
As Thompson takes some pains to point out, the other legislators have not been charged or implicated in the kickback scheme. But let me take pains to point something else out: These lawmakers, unnamed in Thompson’s article when it first appeared yesterday, helped Ecclesia nab more than $700,000 in public GIF funds during a time when they were targeted by an alleged criminal conspiracy trying to influence them. The recipient of that money is an institution that operates as a church for tax purposes, raising constitutional questions to begin with. It is an obscure school with 200 students (around half of whom are enrolled in distance learning) that requested the money to make land purchases of no obvious need for educational purchases. Though most of the money was supposed to be for construction of student housing, there’s no evidence of construction or structural renovation and the land was purchased at well over its appraised value. The stench on this was rank, and at least eight other legislators were happy to grease the wheels. Put it this way: Woods and Neal were able to nearly double their own contributions in the alleged kickback scheme through the help of at least eight of their colleagues.
The text messages between the alleged co-conspirators discussed who would approach which lawmakers and how much they would ask for. Unfortunately, Thompson does not state which particular legislators were specifically named in these text messages, but presumably they include some or all of those who directed GIF money to Ecclesia. Thompson’s previous investigative work under the Freedom of Information Act has uncovered which ten lawmakers, including Woods and Neal, did so between 2013 and early 2015. This information was included in a helpful sidebar from Thompson in the Northwest Arkansas edition of the D-G this morning but not, for some reason, in the central Arkansas edition of the paper (which also failed to immediately print those names when Thompson first reported them last year).
Here are the legislators who directed GIF money to Ecclesia during that timeframe (again, only Woods and Neal have been charged with wrongdoing):
Woods (R-Springdale) $350,000
Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) $60,000
State Sen. Cecile Bledsoe (R-Rogers) $60,000
Neal (R-Springdale) $50,000
Former state Rep. Randy Alexander (R-Rogers) $26,500
Rep. Stephen Meeks (R-Greenbrier) $25,000 (for matching money for a federal student aid grant)
Rep. Charlie Collins (R-Fayetteville) $14,000
Rep. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville) $13,500 .
Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Hindsville) $8,500
Rep. Debra Hobbs (R-Rogers) $10,000
Thompson contacted all of these lawmakers last year and rounded up their excuses. Meeks said he directed the money more than 100 miles away from his district because he had visited it and supported its mission. Hester said it was a “worthy project.” He explained the public largess for the tiny school, gathered up from so many lawmaker buddies, by opining, “It’s a very conservative school, and there’s lots of conservative legislators.” Ballinger said, “My feeling and sense is the college got wrapped up in something it had nothing to do with.” Oops.
In addition to the grants above, the college received $100,000 via the West Central Arkansas Planning and Development District in Hot Springs (200 miles from the college). It’s unclear from public records who directed that money but earlier testimony in the trial indicated that then Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux (who later worked as chief of staff under Gov. Asa Hutchinson), applied pressure to push those grants through despite faulty applications.
That covers the GIF windfalls from 2013 through March of 2015 but the tap didn’t turn off after that! For example, the Arkansas Blog has previously reported on GIF pledges from lawmakers to the college in the summer and fall of 2015 in the name of “workforce development,” including $1,000 from Sen. Uvalde Lindsey (D-Fayetteville), $5,000 from Rep. Grant Hodges (R-Rogers), $5,000 from Rep. Jana Della Rosa (R-Rogers), $10,000 from former state Rep. Justin Harris (R-West Fork), and $5,000 from (again) Collins.
In short, while Woods and Neal are the only lawmakers who have been charged or implicated in the alleged kickback scheme, it’s clear that Ecclesia was only able to get by with a little help from their friends.
Hester testified earlier in the trial that legislators had total control of sending their allotted amounts of GIF money to pet projects (Neal testified that it was a “slush fund“). The regional development districts ostensibly in control of the approval for GIF grants rubber stamped them for lawmakers, Hester testified (despite the Supreme Court calling direct legislator control of such local grants unconstitutional). According to Hester, Woods would spend his allotted GIF money quickly, then approach other lawmakers who still had available funds, such as Hester.
It’s nice that Hester testified for the prosecution about a GIF system that was a perfect breeding ground for corruption. But it’s worth noting that Hester twice approved grants for Ecclesia. (At least one of these came at Woods’ request, according to Hester; though Thompson doesn’t explicitly say so in his report from the courthouse, he wrote that the text messages presented yesterday corroborated Hester’s testimony, so I presume that Hester was mentioned in some of those texts.) In fact, Hester steered more cash to the college than Neal did! No, Hester is not implicated in the alleged kickback scheme, but the alleged kickback scheme was apparently much more successful thanks to Bart Hester.
Hester testified that he pushed the grant money to the school in part because he toured the facility and as a contractor could tell that the dorms were in disrepair. Of course, in addition to being a contractor, Hester is also a lawmaker. One might hope that he would deign to exercise some due diligence regarding where he personally sends public money. Many things, it seems, are in disrepair.