UPDATE: Oren Paris III, the former president of Ecclesia College, who’s pleaded guilty to paying kickbacks in return for state money funneled to the college, was sentenced today to three years in federal prison, three years of supervised release and ordered to pay restitution of $621,500.
The government has recommended an offense level that could produce a sentence ranging from 87 to 108 months, but Judge Timothy Brooks departed from that as he had in two previous related cases.
Paris must report to prison by Oct. 10. He asked to go to a prison at Cedarville, Texas, but those decisions are made by the federal Bureau of Prisons.
Before sentencing, Paris told the court: “I stand before you today humiliated and humbled. I’ve brought shame and pain to my name. I take full responsibility.” Though he took responsibility and pleaded guilty, he said he’d thought he was helping the college raise money by giving then-Sen. Jon Woods a percentage of the money he’d helped direct to the college.
U.S. Attorney Dak Kees remarked about Woods: “When you dance with the devil, you’re going to get burned.”
Judge Brooks said he reduced the sentence for Paris’ “remorsefulness, a lifetime full of good works and extraordinary time and service to those less fortunate.” But he said, “Bribing a public official goes against the grain of our very republic. You were integral to the scheme. You were the person who paid the bribe.” The judge also said, however, that he didn’t think Paris entered the scheme to enrich himself personally, unlike Woods.
Paris presented five character witnesses, including his sister, an uncle and an employee and student from Ecclesia. They depicted Paris as a God-centered man who was devoted to the college. If he had a downfall, they said, it was being naive and too trusting of others. No one mentioned by name Jon Woods, who masterminded the kickback scheme, and former Rep. Micah Neal, a beneficiary, and Randell Shelton, a putative consultant to the college and friend of Paris.
Woods and Shelton were sentenced last week — Woods to more than 18 years and Shelton got six years. Paris will get consideration for pleading guilty, though he ended up not being called to testify at their trial.
The sentencing recommendation was based on a consideration of a loss of $904,5000 and the fact that his crime included illegal conduct with elected officials. Paris had no previous criminal record, which reduced his potential sentence.
Neal, the final defendant in the Ecclesia case, will be sentenced tomorrow.
Paris stepped down as president of the tiny Bible college after the charges became public. His plea agreement includes the ability to withdraw it should an appeal by Woods and Shelton be successful.
Numerous legislators, mostly Northwest Arkansas Republicans, sent General Improvement Fund allotments to Ecclesia. One of them, Rep. Bob Ballinger, later got land title work from the college on land purchased with the state money. No legislator involved in the scandal has sought a repayment of the money from Ecclesia. It was part of a generally unconstitutional scheme to use GIF money for local projects that