Former state Sen. Bryan King recently filed a new suit in Washington County to force Ecclesia College to repay almost $700,000 it received in state funds as part of a bribery scheme with former legislators Micah Neal and Jon Woods.
Neal served home detention after pleading guilty. Woods is serving an 18-year sentence for his nonfiction on bribery charges.
King’s lawsuit is built on facts well known. Neal and Woods schemed to direct surplus money to Ecclesia, nominally for student housing and land for student housing, but at least some of it was spent in kickbacks by the college president, also convicted in the state, to Neal, Woods and Woods’ friend Randell Shelton, also convicted in the case. The money also was spent to buy land that was further used to raise additional money for personal benefits, the lawsuit says.
Since the actions were fraudulent and misuse of public money, a taxpayer is entitled to sue to recover the money, the suit says. The attorney general has made no effort to recover the money. The suit also asks for attorney fees for Matt Bishop.
The suit is a successor to an earlier suit, originally filed as a Freedom of Information Act complaint, in which King was to become the lead plaintiff and amended to seek repayment of money. That suit was dismissed by Judge John Threet in February for Bishop’s failure to meet a filing deadline. He dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning it could be refiled.
In reporting the new suit, filed May 26, the Madison County Record quoted King as saying, “Given what we already know from the situation, they should have already returned the money to taxpayers.”
King was defeated for re-election by Bob Ballinger, who was among many legislators who directed a share of their General Improvement Fund money to Ecclesia. He’s done work for the college and the college has been defended in court by his one-time law partner, Travis Story. Neither of them has been accused of criminal acts.
Bishop’s inability to depose the former college president, Oren Paris III, was one of the reasons for the delay in the earlier case. Federal records say he was released from federal custody on April 29 after serving a three-year sentence. The last year was spent in either home confinement or a halfway house. Randell Shelton is to be released in November 2023, federal prison records indicate.
Bishop tells that the key issue in the case is seeking repayment from a private party that received state money.
Fundamental question is whether third parties can be liable for acquiring public funds via fraud or misusing public funds once obtained. There’s a 1960s case called Nelson v. Berry Petroleum case that says you can. But the Ark. Supreme Court arguably limited that significantly in a 2014 case called Bowerman v. Takeda Pharmaceuticals. Judge Scott in Benton County ruled that you have to have state action to pursue an illegal exaction, and didn’t think bribing state officials for funds was enough. So we will see when I take it up.
Bishop says he’s also refiled a similar, but potentially much larger case, in Benton County against Preferred Family Healthcare, the nonprofit accused of multiple illegal acts of influence-peddling with legislators in return for help in tens of millions worth of publicly financed health programs.
King, a farmer in Green Forest, told me recently that he isn’t interested in seeking office again and added he was feeling better than ever, having lost some 50 pounds. He’s working on a plan to do watchdog reporting on public policy issues. A particular burr in his saddle is a failed landfill in North Arkansas in which taxpayers bailed out private financiers.