Former State Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, has appealed the conviction and sentence of 18 years and four months in federal prison handed down by U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks for Woods’ involvement in a widespread kickback and bribery scheme that included Ecclesia College.
The notice of appeal was filed Thursday (Sept. 20) in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas. Along with the notice, Woods’ attorney Patrick Benca of Little Rock filed a motion for Woods to be released on bond while the appeal is pending and a 22-page brief in support of the motion.
On Sept. 5, Brooks sentenced Woods to 220 months in federal prison. He also ordered Woods, 41, to pay $1.621 million in restitution, a more than $1 million forfeiture money judgement 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.
If Woods is unsuccessful in his appeals, he would serve at least 85% of the sentence, or 15 years and seven months.
On Sept. 13, former Rep. Micah Neal, R-Springdale, was sentenced to three years of probation for his role in the scheme to steal General Improvement Funds (GIF). Neal must pay $200,000 in restitution and must spend the first years of probation on house arrest with an electronic monitor and complete 300 hours of community service over the next two years.
On Sept. 12, Oren Paris III, 50, the former president of Ecclesia College in Springdale, was sentenced to three years in federal prison followed by three years of supervised release for his role in the scheme. Paris also must pay $621,500 in restitution. He must report to prison Oct. 10.
On Sept. 6, Consultant Randell Shelton Jr., 39, was sentenced to six years in federal prison for his involvement in the scheme.
In early May, a federal grand jury returned a guilty verdict against Woods and Shelton for their involvement in the fraud that used the state’s 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.
U.S. Attorney Dak Kees said Woods and Neal 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 two nonprofit entities. The evidence further showed that Woods and Neal received bribes from officials at two nonprofits, including Paris, who was then president of the private Christian school founded by his mother and father.
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.
Details from the indictment shows Woods initially facilitated $200,000 of GIF money to the college and later, together with Neal, directed another $200,000 to the college, all in exchange for kickbacks. To pay and conceal the kickbacks to Woods and Neal, Paris paid a portion of the GIF to Shelton’s consulting company. Shelton then kept a portion of the money and paid the other portion to Woods and Neal.
Paris also bribed Woods by hiring one of the lawmaker’s friends to an administrative position at the four-year college, whose board of regents includes such well-known evangelical figures as political consultant David Barton, movie star and recording artist Pat Boone, gospel singer Twila Paris and former Ohio congressman Bob McEwen.
Neal pleaded guilty on Jan. 4, 2017, and Paris pleaded guilty April 5. One week later, Ecclesia College officials named Randall Bell as the new president of the school.
The ongoing Ecclesia College investigation has left lawmakers, policymakers and political watchers at the State Capitol speculating what other lawmakers and public officials could be indicted or charged next in the widespread bribery and corruption scandal over GIF funds. A separate, but parallel investigation involving former lobbyist Milton “Rusty” Cranford and Springfield, Mo.-based health nonprofit, Preferred Family Healthcare (PFH), has also entrapped two Democratic lawmakers with more indictments ahead of the upcoming 2019 legislative session.