Federal Judge Timothy Brooks has sentenced former Sen. Jon Woods to 220 months, or more than 18 years in prison and ordered him to make restitution of $1,621,500 for masterminding kickback schemes from state money.
He must report to prison by 1 p.m. Sept. 26.
Woods’ attorney has said he would appeal. They will likely seek to postpone prison, but typically a defendant must show a chance of prevailing on appeal to avoid immediate imprisonment. Woods likely will focus on an FBI agent not allowed to testify because of his mishandling of computer files. The government will say it wasn’t relevant because the agent didn’t testify and the material at issue wasn’t prejudicial.
The defense put on character witnesses this afternoon, including police and firefighter union members, two friends and a pastor.
Woods declined to speak.
The judge spoke at length about the severity of the crime. He called Woods’ behavior “depraved.” He said he’d received many letters from Woods’ supporters, but they didn’t overcome a record of habitual stealing of money. “Your entire way of thinking about what your job was was to put money in your pocket and I find that grotesque,” Brooks said.
Defense lawyers tell me they can’t recall a stiffer white collar crime sentence in Arkansas in years. There’s scant “good time” in the federal system. If he isn’t successful in a reversal or a reduction of the sentence (such as by contesting use of his participation in an unrelated crime in the sentencing), Woods could be facing 15 years in prison before release to a halfway house. He just turned 41.
At long last, will one of the legislators who connived to pump taxpayers’ money into the corrupt Ecclesia College try to get our money back? Charlie Collins, Bart Hester, Bob Ballinger and Cecile Bledsoe: Particularly looking at you.
In the sentencing today, the judge also entered a $1.097 million “money judgment” against Woods which allows the government to seize any assets he might have to satisfy the judgment.
Update from Benji:
The 220-month sentence Woods received today was severe, but things could have gone even worse for the former senator if Judge Timothy Brooks had strictly adhered to federal sentencing guidelines.
At the end of a five-hour hearing, Brooks departed somewhat from the guideline range, noting that the points-based system of federal sentencing in this case resulted in a recommendation that seemed “somewhat out of whack” when compared to similar fraud cases. Applied to Woods, the guidelines resulted in an offense level of 41 points, which translates to a sentence of 324 months to 405 months. Brooks said he could only find one similar federal fraud case that resulted in a sentence of greater than 324 months, and that was for a repeat offender. (Woods had a clean criminal record before his conviction in May.)
As bad as Woods’ crimes were, Brooks said, a prison sentence in the 30-year range would be inappropriate.
Still, the judge condemned Woods’ conduct in no uncertain terms. He rebuked Woods at one point for using his “knowledge of the inner workings of state government … [to] bastardize that process.” Meditating for a moment on the relative seriousness of various felony charges, Brooks conceded that Woods’ actions didn’t rise to the level of violent crime or child pornography. However, he said, “the quality and the seriousness of your offense conduct here is deserving of no less a sentence than some of the more serious meth distributors that this court routinely sees.”
“You took an oath to faithfully discharge the duties of your office, and you breached that oath,” Brooks told Woods. “You were one of 35 state senators representing about three million people in the state of Arkansas. Think about that. … You stole from the very people from whom you asked for their votes.”
Brooks acknowledged that Woods evidently still has admirers among his former constituents and others. He read aloud from some of the many letters he received attesting to the former senator’s character. “Jon truly cared about the little people,” said one. “We never felt brushed aside. He always had time for us,” said another. One letter related a story of Woods administering CPR to a woman who collapsed at the Capitol. The letter, written by the woman’s son, said Woods’ actions likely saved his mother’s life.
Brooks said that one of the supportive letters was written by a current state senator, though he didn’t name the lawmaker. No legislators were present at Woods’ sentencing hearing.
Brooks said he’d “accept at face value” that when Woods first sought elected office, he did so for good reasons. Woods did sponsor several “meaningful, legitimate legislative works that you have every right to be proud of,” the judge said, citing a bill that set up an umbilical cord blood bank in the state, among others.
“But,” the judge said, “at some point along the way, and I don’t know exactly where … you evolved.”
“You developed a mentality that I can make myself a key man in the wheels of state government, and I can get some juice every time those wheels are ground, if I play my cards right,” Brooks said. He emphasized the “methodical nature” of Woods’ schemes, which stretched over a series of years, and often involved multiple co-conspirators.
“This was not an isolated event. This is something you figured out and became adept at over some period of time. … You were playing chess at a very high level, thinking three or four or five moves ahead.”
Brooks castigated Woods for the sheer number of offenses, the amount of money involved and his “willingness to lie about the little things” throughout the course of the 18-month criminal case.
In reference to the police union, the judge said he found it “extraordinarily ironic” that a statewide organization representing law enforcement was testifying to Woods’ character. “You were their go-to guy at the same time you were being a thief of state money?” he asked.
The judge saved his harshest criticism for one particular episode involving a $400,000 GIF grant to AmeriWorks, a nonprofit under the umbrella of the behavioral health provider once called Alternative Opportunities. That provider is now called Preferred Family Healthcare. Woods and co-conspirator Micah Neal — a former state representative who is to be sentenced next week — steered the state grant money to AmeriWorks in exchange for kickbacks. Neal’s plea deal says those kickback payments were arranged by an executive at Alternative Opportunities, Rusty Cranford.
However, Cranford and others at Alternative Opportunities later gave the full $400,000 back to the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District, the public entity that had made the grant at the direction of legislators Woods and Neal. Cranford evidently did so because he realized the FBI was investigating his activities. (Cranford pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges in June, detailing a sprawling web of corruption involving Woods, Neal and other state lawmakers.)
Brooks said today that after the $400,000 was returned to the development district, Woods attempted to come up with another means of profiting from that sum.
“Either it reflects desperation on your part or the depraved extent to which you thought you could get away with all this,” Brooks told Woods. “When AO, Alternative Opportunities, had the FBI show up on their doorstep, they realize that the gig is up, and they scramble over the course of a few days to come up with $400,000 so they can return it back to the Northwest Arkansas Development District — which, coincidentally, at the time was going through a turnover in leadership.”
The incoming director of the development district then brought the returned check to the attention of Woods and Neal, Brooks said. “And instead of realizing ‘Why in the world would AO return that money? And if they return the money, what about the bribes and the kickbacks that we got out of that? Why would they include that in there, too?’ … Instead of thinking about that, your immediate — almost reflexive — response was to come up with a scheme to re-steal the same money.”
“I find that amazing,” Brooks said. “And I find that that fact gives great insight into the depravity inside your heart and the depth to which you violated the sanctity of the oath that you took to the citizens of the state of Arkansas.”
The federal government issued a statement after the sentencing:
“Today’s sentence is the result of very hard work by the assigned Assistant United States Attorneys and the special agents from the IRS and the FBI”, said United States Attorney DAK Kees. “We both respect and appreciate the judgment of the Court and the sentence that Judge Brooks ordered today. This sentence should send a message to the people who would abuse the trust of Arkansas voters and citizens. It should serve as a serious warning to those who would intentionally steal money from taxpayers and use their elected office to both commit and conceal their crimes. As I stated after the jury trial concluded, my office, along with the Criminal Division from the Department of Justice, will continue to investigate, pursue and prosecute public corruption cases in Arkansas in order to ensure the fairness and justice that the people of Arkansas deserve.”
“Jonathan Woods abused his position as an Arkansas State Senator and betrayed the public trust by taking bribes and kickbacks,” said Assistant Attorney General Benczkowski. “This conviction demonstrates the commitment of the Department of Justice and our federal partners to investigate and prosecute public officials who misuse their authority to benefit themselves at the expense of the citizens they pledged to serve.”
“Jonathan Woods violated the public’s trust and misused his authority for the purpose of lining his own pockets,” said Special Agent in Charge Diane Upchurch with the Little Rock FBI Field Office, “We are proud of the commitment of our partners at the United States Attorney’s Office of the Western Division, the IRS, and the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section.”