UPDATE: Former state Rep. Micah Neal has received a probationary sentence, including one year of home confinement, for what Judge Timothy Brooks called an “unprecedented” reduction in sentencing guidelines for his cooperation in the case in which he’s pleaded guilty to taking kickbacks from more than $600,000 in state money he helped direct to Ecclesia College.
The judge gave him a three-year probationary sentence, with the first year to be served in home confinement. He’ll be electronically monitored. He must perform 300 hours of community service. He was ordered to make $200,000 in restitution.
Neal in home confinement may go to work, church and medical appointments.
Brooks said he mitigated the sentence because of the “level and extent” of cooperation and his key role in the conviction of co-conspirators. “You had a relative casualness that this is what you do as a legislator,” the judge remarked. “I’m disturbed by that.” He noted that Neal had gone to Woods about a way to make money.
U.S. Attorney Dak Kees and the judge both used the word “conundrum” in figuring a sentence for someone who’d been so cooperative, but also to send a message that this is bad behavior. Kees never asked for probation, but he didn’t ask for a specific prison sentence either. Said Kees: “Your honor I don’t know what justice is in this case, but I hope you do.”
Neal apologized to the General Assembly, constituents and family. “I was selfish and I let you down. You deserved better.” When the judge asked him about how he got involved, he said, “I had heard people had gotten payments for things and it was the easy way to take care of things,” referring to financial troubles and a pending divorce.
“I know it was wrong, but that’s what I did.”
The family looked relieved when the probationary sentence was announced.
Kees was questioned after about the light sentence. He acknowledged he’d built a relationship with Neal and his attorney. But he said repeatedly that the sentence sent a message “if you come early, if you cooperate, we’ll work with you.”
His sentencing hearing began this morning in Fayetteville. Judge Brooks said the calculation by the government would produce a sentence under the guidelines of 37 to 46 months, after a deduction in points toward sentencing of 10 levels, which the judge said was unprecedented. Without that reduction, the sentencing range could have been 108 to 135 months.
The judge said Neal had cooperated from the beginning with investigators in giving details about the scheme masterminded by then-Sen. Jon Woods and involving then–Ecclesia President Oren Paris III and their mutual friend, Randell Shelton, who was the middleman on kickbacks to Woods and Neal from state money the college received. Neal pleaded guilty and testified in the jury trial convictions of Woods and Shelton. Paris also pleaded guilty.
Brooks had granted reductions from sentencing guidelines in the three previous cases he’s heard, giving Woods 18 years and four months; Shelton six years and Paris three years.
Neal called four character witnesses — his father, owner of Neal’s Cafe; his wife, and two lifelong friends. His wife testified emotionally in asking for mercy for Neal and his family. “He’s the heart of our family. He’s our kids’ whole world,” she said. She said their 10-year-old daughter was fearful of not having her father.
The money Ecclesia received was laundered through a local planning and development district in a statewide scheme to spread surplus state money to local projects in a manner that the Supreme Court subsequently ruled was unconstitutional. Ecclesia racked up more dollars than other beneficiaries because of money sent its way by many Republican legislators, some with ties to the college and at least one, Rep. Bob Ballinger, who got legal work on land purchases facilitated by the state money. No legislator has apologized for their role in the scandal or made a move to get the money back. At least 10 gave money.