Former Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, on Wednesday (Sept. 5) was sentenced to 18 years and four months in federal prison for his involvement in a widespread kickback and bribery scheme that included Ecclesia College. If unsuccessful in his appeals, Woods would serve at least 85% of the sentence, or 15 years and seven months.
The 220-month sentence was handed down mid-afternoon by U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks following a sentencing hearing that began at 9 a.m. in the federal courthouse in Fayetteville. Brooks also ordered Woods, 41, to pay $1.621 million in restitution, a more than $1 million forfeiture money judgment and a $1,500 special assessment for the 15 counts on which he was found guilty. Woods is required to report to prison by 1 p.m. Sept. 26 and will remain out of jail on his existing bond until then. When released, he’ll have three years of supervised release and must notify his probation officer before opening a bank account.
Woods, who has 14 days to appeal, had previously told the judge of his intention to appeal. In the hearing, Brooks said Woods has not recognized any wrongdoing on his part as he intends to seek dismissal of the charges or seek another trial and doesn’t receive any credit for being remorseful. When the judge asked Woods to make a statement to the court, Woods declined.
Brooks, who compared Woods to a methamphetamine dealer, said he believes Woods initially ran for political office with good intentions, but at some point, he evolved. He explained Woods’ schemes as a game of chess in which he was thinking three to four steps ahead. Brooks also considered several mitigating factors such as letter of support for Woods and several people who spoke in favor of Woods at the hearing. Woods’ attorney Patrick Benca of Little Rock had asked for probation or home detention and community service, but Brooks said it would not deter similar crimes.
“A sentence within the guideline range would be sad,” Benca said.
U.S. Attorney Duane ‘Dak’ Kees of the Western District of Arkansas argued that Woods should serve between 27 years and 33 years and nine months in prison. This was the guideline range based on the facts of the case, but Brooks didn’t believe the range was appropriate. In a press conference after the hearing, Kees said he’d wished the judge would’ve stayed within the guideline range but accepted the judgement.
“This sentence should send a message to the people who would abuse the trust of Arkansas voters and citizens. It should serve as a serious warning to those who would intentionally steal money from taxpayers and use their elected office to both commit and conceal their crimes,” Kees said.
Also in the hearing, Brooks overruled nearly all of Woods’ objections to pre-sentencing documents, including an objection that implicated Woods’ involvement in a $1 million grant from the state Department of Human Services to substance abuse program Alternative Opportunities or Decision Point. In total, Brooks attributed losses of more than $2.021 million in Woods’ case. Later, Brooks included Woods’ name when he read an oath of office similar to what Woods would have agreed to uphold when sworn in to office.
“This is a sacred oath,” Brooks said. “You breached that oath. You stole from the very people from whom you asked for their votes. This was not an isolated event.”
A federal jury on May 3 returned a guilty verdict against Woods and consultant Randell Shelton Jr., 39, of Alma, for their involvement in the fraud that used the state’s General Improvement Fund (GIF) dollars. Woods was convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit honest services mail and wire fraud in violation of federal law, 12 counts of honest services wire fraud, one count of honest services mail fraud and one count of money laundering. Shelton was convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit honest services mail and wire fraud in violation of federal law, 10 counts of honest services wire fraud and one count of honest services mail fraud.
Specifically, Woods and former Rep. Micah Neal, R-Springdale, authorized and directed the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District, which was responsible for disbursing the GIF, to award a total of approximately $600,000 in GIF money to the two nonprofit entities. The evidence further showed that Woods and Neal received bribes from officials at two nonprofits, including Oren Paris III, 49, of Springdale, who was the president of Ecclesia College, a private Christian school.
Woods had solicited and accepted kickbacks, and Shelton “covered it up by funneling the kickbacks through his consulting company,” said John Cronan, acting assistant attorney general. The FBI, IRS and U.S. Attorney’s Office had investigated the case for three years, and Kees said that it was still under investigation.
Neal, 43, pleaded guilty on Jan. 4, 2017, before Judge Brooks to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud. Paris pleaded guilty in the same court on April 5, 2018, to one count of honest services wire fraud.
GOVERNOR DISCUSSES CASE
In a press conference at the State Capitol, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who was a U.S. attorney, told reporters he understood the ongoing federal investigation could be a lengthy process and foreshadowed a possible lengthy sentence for Woods.
“I do expect the sentencing to be significant because he was a public official that had a public trust that was violated,” Hutchinson said. “And under federal sentencing guidelines, that is an enhancement — as it should be.”
The Republican governor also said he was troubled by the allegations in the federal probe that might lead to more convictions, indictments or plea bargains.
“Anybody who has been in public service has to be distressed by the ongoing controversies and wrongdoing of various public officials, whether current or former. You don’t violate the public trust, and so I know that legislature has looked at ways to improve disclosure, and we need to do that, but it is also very important for the public to understand that many times these are not many times gray areas…of right and wrong.”
“But we have to rely on the justice system to work its will. And there are those that have claimed their innocence, and they are entitled to have their day in court. There are others who have pled guilty that have received their punishment, and others that have fought it — and been found guilty,” Hutchinson continued. “So, each one have a different story, but from a public policy and government standpoint, we want to make sure that we do all we can improve transparency, to make sure the public understand what’s happening, and that we all personally engage in behavior that reflects well on public service.”
Following Woods’ sentencing, the Executive Committee of the Democratic Party of Washington County released the following statement: “Today’s sentencing makes it abundantly clear that the Republican Party is rife with corruption. The decay starts at the top and goes beyond our county. Donald Trump’s campaign chairman has been convicted in federal court, his personal attorney who negotiated hush money for mistress Stormy Daniels, has pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges including two campaign finance charges. Several others close to his campaign have been indicted for a myriad of misdeeds. When it comes to the Republican Party of Arkansas, there is almost too much material for this release.”
Senior Reporter Wesley Brown contributed to this story.