The opening round of sentences for two of those convicted with a bribery scheme involving state money shipped to Ecclesia College in Springdale probably didn’t calm the nerves of two defendants who’ll be sentenced next week. And the government has disputed the claim of one of them to have been a minor player in the crime.
Former state Rep. Micah Neal, whose early cooperation apparently helped blow this and other public corruption cases open, will be sentenced by Judge Timothy Brooks Thursday, Sept. 13. Oren Paris III, the former president of the college, also pleaded guilty. He’ll be sentenced Wednesday, Sept. 12.
Former Sen. Jon Woods devised the scheme to send state General Improvement Fund money to Ecclesia (helped by many other Northwest Arkansas legislators.) His friend Randell Shelton, nominally a fund-raising consultant, was paid a kickback by Paris from the state money. Shelton sent bribe money to Woods and Neal.
This week, Woods got a whopping 18-year sentence. Shelton got a six-year sentence. Both were ordered to make restitution and forfeit any current assets.
Sentencing recommendations for both Paris and Neal remain under seal. Both have agreements that provide consideration
But both have admitted to similar felonies and a document filed last week indicates the government has disputed Neal’s effort to reduce his exposure under federal sentencing guidelines.
In a sentencing memorandum, the government says the recommendations in the federal probation
Neal argued that he should be held responsible only for money he sent to Ameriworks, an agency related to what became Preferred Family Healthcare and a larger fraud scheme, and Ecclesia, but not for money Woods sent. But the government said he should be responsible for the whole $400,000. The facts, said the government, “amply support” the conclusion:
… that Woods’ conduct in directing GIF money to Ameriworks and Ecclesia was part of the jointly undertaken activity, which was in furtherance of the activity, and was not only reasonably foreseeable to Neal but was actually known by Neal.
The government also disputed Neal’s argument that he was a minor player in the fraud.
In this case, Neal exercised control and authority as an elected public official to direct taxpayer monies in return for kickbacks on two separate occasions. While Woods devised, orchestrated and lead the conspiracy, and was more culpable than Neal, Neal was nevertheless deeply involved in the conspiracy and was not sufficiently less culpable than other participants in the schemes so as to warrant a reduction for minor role in the offense.
The maximum penalty for the conspiracy to which Neal has pled is 20 years. But he’s a first offender. The government has also agreed to ask for a three-level downward reduction in the sentencing guidelines if he piles up more than 16 points through the amount of money taken and other factors. At a level of 16, the sentencing guideline could be 21 months or less, but I don’t know enough about all the relevant factors in Neal’s case to make a guess where Neal will stand on the guidelines. Tough as Brooks’ sentences were for Woods and Shelton, both represented downward departures from what he could have imposed under guidelines.
There are no open documents relevant to Paris’ sentencing.