The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today heard oral arguments from Oren Paris III, former president of Ecclesia College, that his conviction in the state funds corruption case could be dismissed because of mishandling of evidence held on an FBI agent’s laptop.
Paris pleaded guilty and is serving a three-year sentence in the scheme in which then-Sen. Jon Woods masterminded a plot to ship more than $600,000 in state surplus money to the tiny Bible college, with Paris kicking back more than $250,000 to his friend Randell Shelton, who in turn passed some $200,000 of it to Woods. Woods is serving an 18-year sentence and Shelton a six-year sentence. Former Rep. Micah Neal, who turned himself in and testified for the government, got home detention.
Shelton and Woods are appealing as well and their central point is the same as Paris’ argument today. It’s a replay of extensive arguments during trial, rejected by Judge Timothy Brooks, that the cases were fatally flawed because FBI Agent Robert Cessario had wiped a laptop on which some evidence in the case had been downloaded and lied about it when initially questioned. The judge refused to allow the introduction of recovered evidence that had been on the laptop. He also wouldn’t allow Cessario to testify.
Travis Story, arguing today for Paris, said nobody knows what other material might have been available to review had the laptop not been wiped. The government countered that the judge ultimately found that the material on the laptop was not relevant. This was a document case, the government argued, and was amply proved by, among others, communications provided by Story and others. The defense ultimately received 65 hours of recordings made by Micah Neal and has yet to cite a specific piece of exculpatory evidence from those tapes, the government said.
Though Paris pleaded guilty, he reserved his right to appeal on the laptop issue. Questioning from the judges indicated some doubt that excluding Cessario was a sufficient punishment for the misconduct. But they also asked whether there was a remedy short of dismissal of charges that might have been taken.
One judge said, “I’m not sure dismissal was warranted. But I’m not sure the court did all it could have done to remedy destruction.” The judge asked if the remedy wasn’t “largely symbolic”
“The only adequate remedy is dismissal,” Story said.
The government’s attorney argued Paris had suffered no prejudice and that the judge had provided leeway to delve into Cessario if he chose to go to trial. “It would be punishing the government for someone’s misconduct when he had nothing to do with the evidence presented in the trial.”
The U.S. attorney said other punishment against Cessario perhaps would be appropriate, even prosecution. He remains employed by the FBI. One judge commented that he’d never be able to testify in a case again.
Judges Jane Kelly, Michael Melloy and David Stras heard the case.