HEADING TO COURT: Jon Woods is at right.

A sentencing hearing for former Sen. Jon Woods began at 9 a.m. today and was expected to resume after a lunchtime break. Benji Hardy reports so far that Judge Timothy Brooks has approved a number of enhancements to Woods’ potential sentence, including allowing consideration of Woods’ implication in a guilty plea by former lobbyist Rusty Cranford in a $1 million appropriation to a behavioral health provider that had connections to Cranford.

Woods is to be sentenced on one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, 12 counts of wire fraud, one count of mail fraud and one count of money laundering. A jury convicted him in May. He has said he will appeal. The most serious charge carries a penalty up to 20 years, though Woods will qualify for a reduction at the outset as a first offender.

But Hardy reports that the judge has approved two upward departures in sentencing because the case involved bribes, four upward departures because he’s an elected official, four because he was a leader of the scheme and 16 because of the amount of money involved, more than $1.5 million — counting the $1 million in the Cranford scheme. (The figure was more than $2 million — $621,000 for Ecclesia; $400,000 intended but not paid to Ameriworks, which had links to Cranford and Preferered Family Healthcare, and the $1 million.)

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Woods was the sponsor of legislation that sent $1 million to Cranford’s former employer. Woods’ wife got a high-paying job with the agency after the deal.  Woods’ attorneys fought to keep this out of the sentencing because it was not an element in this trial. But the judge decided the pattern of his behavior could be a factor in sentencing.

An IRS agent testifying about the $1 million was asked by defense lawyers why Gov. Mike Beebe wasn’t responsible for the spending of the money since it went through an executive agency, the Department of Human Services. The agent said he’d never talked to Beebe but had talked to DHS staff members. He said he’d learned that $2 million had been sought for a competitive program for local behavioral health services but the governor had said that was too much.

Defense witnesses are to come this afternoon.

Woods is being sentenced as the architect of a scheme to send almost $700,000 to Ecclesia, some of it designated by many other legislators through the General Improvement Fund allotment of surplus money, a scheme itself subsequently found to be an unconstitutional expenditure of state tax money on local projects.

Former state Rep. Micah Neal and the college president, Oren Paris III, both had pleaded guilty to the fraud. Randell Shelton, best man at Woods’ wedding, was convicted at trial with Woods as a middleman between Paris and Woods. The money went to Ecclesia, Paris sent some back to Shelton and Shelton then handed out cash to Neal and Woods.

The others are scheduled for sentencing in the next few days.

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The appeal will rest on an FBI agent’s mishandling of a computer for personal use and questions about loss of some of the information that was gathered. Woods also switched lawyer, complaining that his first lawyer, W.H. Taylor, had tried to get him to plead guilty to lessen his sentence. Woods cooperated for a time, but evidence suggests he wasn’t always honest about the facts.