Arkansas State Senator Sentenced to 220 Months in Prison in Bribery Case Involving Ecclesia College; UPDATE: Former President Sentenced to Three Years in Prison

UPDATE (9/14/18) – Oren Paris III, former president of Ecclesia College, was sentenced on September 12 to three years in prison for his part in the bribery and kickback scheme described below. He will also have to pay $621,000 in restitution.  Paris originally claimed innocence but then bargained with prosecutors for a reduced sentence. In essence, Paris helped to redirect taxpayer funds to state legislators in exchange for some of those funds being diverted to Ecclesia.

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Last year, I wrote some posts about a bribery case in Arkansas involving a State Senator, a State Representative and the president of Ecclesia College, Oren Paris III. Despite being a small college, Ecclesia has some big names on one of their boards, including David Barton and Eric Metaxas.

Initially, Paris and his board proclaimed innocence. However, he eventually pleaded guilty and will be sentenced on September 12. This press release from the Department of Justice’s U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Arkansas announces a very strong sentence against the State Senator involved Johnathan Woods. Those involved concocted a scheme to secure taxpayer funds through kickbacks and bribes.

The press release below provides a good summary of the situation. To get more background see also these posts.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Former Arkansas State Senator Sentenced To 220 Months In Federal Prison For Wire Fraud, Mail Fraud And Money [Laundering]

Fayetteville, Arkansas – Former Arkansas State Senator Johnathan Woods was sentenced today to 220 months in prison for organizing and leading a bribery scheme in which state funds were directed to non-profit entities in exchange for kickbacks, many of which were funneled through a consultant’s business, announced U.S. Attorney Duane “DAK” Kees for the Western District of Arkansas, Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, FBI Special Agent in Charge Diane Upchurch and IRS Special Agent in Charge Tamera Cantu.

On May 3 2018, a jury found Jonathan E. Woods, 41, of Springdale, Arkansas, guilty of 15 counts, including conspiracy, honest services wire and mail fraud, and money laundering.  In addition to his prison sentence, U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks of the Western District of Arkansas sentenced Woods to serve three years of supervised release and ordered Woods to pay $1,621,500.00 in restitution.

“Today’s sentence is the result of very hard work by the assigned Assistant United States Attorneys and the special agents from the IRS and the FBI”, said United States Attorney DAK Kees.  “We both respect and appreciate the judgment of the Court and the sentence that Judge Brooks ordered today.  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.  As I stated after the jury trial concluded, my office, along with the Criminal Division from the Department of Justice, will continue to investigate, pursue and prosecute public corruption cases in Arkansas in order to ensure the fairness and justice that the people of Arkansas deserve.”

“Jonathan Woods abused his position as an Arkansas State Senator and betrayed the public trust by taking bribes and kickbacks,” said Assistant Attorney General Benczkowski.  “This conviction demonstrates the commitment of the Department of Justice and our federal partners to investigate and prosecute public officials who misuse their authority to benefit themselves at the expense of the citizens they pledged to serve.”

“Jonathan Woods violated the public’s trust and misused his authority for the purpose of lining his own pockets,” said Special Agent in Charge Diane Upchurch with the Little Rock FBI Field Office, “We are proud of the commitment of our partners at the United States Attorney’s Office of the Western Division, the IRS, and the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section.”

According to the evidence presented at trial, Woods served as an Arkansas State Senator from 2013 to 2017.  Between approximately 2013 and approximately 2015, Woods used his official position as a senator to appropriate and direct government money, known as General Improvement Funds (GIF), to two non-profit entities by, among other things, directly authorizing GIF disbursements and advising other Arkansas legislators – including former State Representative Micah Neal, 43, of Springdale, Arkansas – to contribute GIF to the non-profits.  Specifically, 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 the two non-profit entities.  The evidence further showed that Woods and Neal received bribes from officials at both non-profits, including Oren Paris III, 50, of Springdale, Arkansas, who was the president of a college.  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 a consulting company controlled by Randell G. Shelton Jr., 39, of Alma, Arkansas.  Shelton then kept a portion of the money and paid the other portion to Woods and Neal.  Paris also bribed Woods by hiring Woods’s friend to an administrative position at the college.

Shelton also was found guilty by a jury on May 3.  He was convicted of 12 counts, including conspiracy and honest services wire and mail fraud, and is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 6.  Paris pleaded guilty on April 5, before Judge Brooks to one count of honest services wire fraud, and he is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 12.  Neal pleaded guilty on Jan. 4, 2017, before Judge Brooks to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, and he is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 13.

The FBI and IRS Criminal Investigation investigated the case.  Trial Attorney Sean F. Mulryne of the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section and First Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Elser and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kyra Jenner and Aaron Jennen of the Western District of Arkansas prosecuted the case.

Incidentally, Judge Brooks is also the presiding judge in the Gospel for Asia case.

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Image: Fair use from Ecclesia College website

Oren Paris III Resigns as Ecclesia College President, Enters Conditional Guilty Plea in Kickback Scheme

Correction: An earlier version of this article said Ecclesia was unaccredited. I have corrected it to reflect that the school is accredited by the Association of Biblical Higher Education but is not regionally accredited which is the gold standard for academic accreditation. 
…………………………………….
Watch out, shoes are dropping in the Ecclesia College kickback case.
Arkansas Online today reports that Oren Paris III resigned from his post as president of Ecclesia College and entered a last minute conditional

Ecclesia College

guilty plea in the kickback and bribery case which came to light early last year. Along with State Senator Jon Woods, and consultant Randall Shelton, Paris was indicted in federal court on March 1, 2017 for allegedly participating in a scheme to funnel state improvement funds through Ecclesia to Woods and Shelton. State representative Micah Neal was also in on the alleged plot and earlier entered a guilty plea.

Read the Indictment Here

Ecclesia College is an Christian school in Springdale AR which has the support of Christian nationalists David Barton and Eric Metaxas. The school is accredited by the Association for Biblical Higher Education but is not accredited by the Higher Learning Commission which covers schools in Arkansas.
Initially, Paris was defiant and claimed he would be vindicated. Although Paris entered a guilty plea, the move may have been a legal maneuver, according to media reports. His trial was slated to begin Monday and Paris may be hoping to revisit his status if an appeals court overturns Judge Timothy Brooks decision not to dismiss the case.

Read the Plea Agreement Here

In the plea agreement, Paris admits that he “knowingly obtained GIF [General Improvement Funds] money for the College under materially false and fraudulent pretenses.” Paris then caused funds to be paid to Randall Shelton knowing that some of those funds would end up back with Senator Jon Woods in a kickback. By entering a conditional guilty plea to one count, Paris has thrown Shelton and Woods under the bus.
Incredibly, Ecclesia College is standing by Paris, writing on the school Facebook page:

Dear friends,
As you know, Dr. Oren Paris and two others were indicted a little over a year ago by the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas. For Oren, his immediate family, and the extended family at Ecclesia College, this has been a period of spiritual trial, eased by an ever increasing gratitude for God’s constant presence and His great faithfulness.
While we continue to believe firmly that Dr. Paris has been honest and forthright in his statements from the beginning of this case, he and his legal team are now convinced that the best path forward is to accept a conditional plea agreement negotiated with the government. We stand with him in his decision.
Information recently brought to Dr. Paris’s attention has shed new light on facts he previously knew but had interpreted differently. This enables him to truthfully make the statement required by the government. The terms of the conditional plea agreement clear the path for an appeal to be filed with the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals to address some the issues raised during the course of this case that have caused us all great concern regarding the appearance of fairness of the judicial system. In the meantime, while Dr. Paris will be stepping down as president of Ecclesia College until his name is cleared in order to avoid further unnecessary distraction from the College’s mission, he will continue to serve Ecclesia.
We know and trust that God is moving on our behalf toward His ultimate answer to our ongoing prayer for His deliverance. Please continue to pray with us that the upcoming appeal will lead to a fully just outcome in the end.We are completely confident that God has every individual and this institution in His all-capable hands. To the faculty, staff, and students operations will continue as normal. We look forward to seeing Him in and through this situation for the overall good and promising future of Ecclesia College.
For His glory,
EC Board of Governance

It is very difficult to square the plea agreement with this statement from the Board of Governance. If his statement to the government is true, then he “knowingly obtained GIF money for the College under materially false and fraudulent pretenses” and “knowing and intentionally engaged in a scheme to defraud the citizens of Arkansas of the honest services of Arkansas state Senator Woods.” (See image below from page 4 of the plea agreement)

This case is not over. Senator Woods and Randall Shelton still must go to trial and no doubt they will have something to say about Paris’ involvement.
 
 
 

Ecclesia College President Oren Paris Among New Indictments in Arkansas Bribery Scandal

The other shoe dropped today.
After Arkansas state representative Micah Neal was indicted for his part in a kickback scheme involving Western Arkansas non-profits, including Ecclesia College, speculation mounted that state senator Jon Woods would also be indicted. The fate of others mentioned in the Neal indictment was not as clear. However, today a federal grand jury released indictments of Woods, Ecclesia College president Oren Paris III and their mutual friend Randell Shelton, Jr.
Read the indictment here.
According to the indictment, Neal, Woods, Shelton and Paris conspired to defraud the citizens of Arkansas.
Paris indictment
The purpose of the arrangement was to enrich all of those indicted. From the indictment:
Purpose AR Bribes
The indictment spells out in detail the communications between Paris, Wood and Shelton.
Despite the indictment, Ecclesia’s board is standing by their man. A couple of hours ago, the college posted the following letter on their Facebook page.
Board letter
Ecclesia College also lists a Board of Regents with notable Christians such as Pat Boone, David Barton, and Eric Metaxas.

Honorable Bob McEwen
Dr. David Barton
Pat Boone
Dr. Steve Henderson
Dennis Lindsay
Dr. H. D. McCarty
Eric Metaxas
Twila Paris
Winkie Pratney
Valentin Vale
 

 

Over $600,000 of State Funding Went to Ecclesia College in FY 2013

Yesterday, Max Brantley at the Arkansas blog posted results of his freedom of information request from the state government. He was able to get emails regarding funds funneled to Ecclesia College as well as the subpoena to the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District from investigators looking into the Arkansas bribery scandal.
I found one email especially interesting. In it, the NWAEDD sent a listing of grants issued by the District to Ecclesia College. See it below:
Money to Ecclesia College 2013 grant cycle
The figures add up to $621,000, mostly for property acquisition. Thus, the taxpayers of Arkansas have helped to purchase land for a church (which the college is according to the IRS). Something seems very wrong about this.
In the material Brantley received, it is clear that Oren Paris III, the president of Ecclesia College, is being investigated in some fashion. The subpoena requests all communications and documentation regarding the General Improvement Fund grants. Most likely, Paris and Ecclesia will remain silent about the matter until the investigation is completed.

Bible College at Center of Arkansas Bribery Scandal is Actually a Church

In fact, Ecclesia College is a part of a church called Ecclesia, Inc.
According to Guidestar, Ecclesia, Inc. “is not required to file an annual return with the IRS because it is a church.” Unlike other non-profit entities, Ecclesia isn’t accountable to the public via the annual 990 filing. Somehow the college and several other activities are considered a church by the IRS. On Ecclesia College’s website, a list of organizations are provided which are a part of the “church” or what they call the “Ecclesia Network.”

Bibles for the Nations
Ecclesia Children’s Ministries
Ecclesia Prep
Ecclesia Relief and Development
Happy Few Unlimited [???]
Strategic Missions
Twila Paris Productions

Twila Paris’ music business and all these other religious businesses are apparently a part of this “church.” According to Ecclesia College’s history page:

Ecclesia College is an important branch of the Ecclesia Network.  Other ministries in the network include Strategic Missions, Ecclesia Relief and Development, Bibles For the Nations, Twila Paris Productions, Ecclesia Children’s Ministries, and Happy Few Unlimited.

When Micah Neal’s plea agreement says that development funds were directed to a “nonprofit corporation operating a college located in Springdale” the reference is apparently to Ecclesia, Inc. which is a church.
If Ecclesia is a church, then who is the pastor?
In essence, Arkansas tax payers have spent well over $500,000 since 2013 building a “church” in Springdale, Arkansas via the General Improvement Fund. This church isn’t functioning as a church but appears to be shielding several money making ventures from public accountability and possibly taxation.
Last March, the Freedom from Religion Foundation complained to the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District about the allocation of funds to Ecclesia. According to the FFRF report, a NWAEDD representative pledged not to use any additional funds for religious purposes.
While I doubt it will happen, I believe the Arkansas legislature should investigate the funneling of funds to Ecclesia and other religious organizations. Specifically, Ecclesia’s role, if any, in the bribery scandal should be investigated. More generally, Ecclesia’s status as a church appears to be questionable as has been the practice of allocating public funds for sectarian religious purposes.

Ecclesia College Bans Questions about Arkansas Bribery Scandal

Ecclesia
Ecclesia College

Last week, Arkansas state representative Micah Neal pleaded guilty to fraud and accepting bribes from two non-profits in his district in exchange for state government discretionary funds. One of the non-profits has been identified as Ecclesia College, a Bible college in Springdale, Arkansas. In the plea agreement with Rep. Neal, the president of Ecclesia College — Oren Paris III –  is referred to as one of those who authorized payments to Rep. Neal. After this news emerged, Paris issued a statement via Facebook denying any wrongdoing.
After Paris posted his denial, I left a comment asking about specific elements of the plea agreement. The agreement claimed Paris (“Person B”) authorized payment of $18,000 to Neal through a consultant (“Person C”). On the Facebook page comment section, I asked about the identity of Person C is and why Ecclesia College paid Person C $65,000 as stated in the plea agreement. According to the agreement, $18,000 was authorized to go to Rep. Neal. Two other commenters also called on Paris to provide more information.
As of yesterday, Ecclesia College has removed those comments from their Facebook denial and banned my account from commenting. I heard from one other commenter who is also banned. Instead of addressing what are fair questions based on the plea agreement, Ecclesia removed the comments.
It seems likely that additional charges will come in this case and that the questions for Ecclesia will not go away. If there is truly no wrongdoing Ecclesia should be transparent about this deal which involves tax payer funding and a breach of public trust.

Arkansas Bribery Scandal: Will Oren Paris' Denial Be Enough?

Last night on Facebook, Ecclesia College’s president Oren Paris III denied any wrongdoing in the emerging Arkansas bribery scandal. Yesterday, state representative Micah Neal admitted conspiring with an as yet unnamed state senator to secure bribes from two non-profits, one being Ecclesia College, in exchange for funds administered by the state’s General Improvement Fund.
Paris “unequivocally” stated “that neither I nor Ecclesia College have been party to illegal activity.” Paris’ denial leaves many unanswered questions which were raised by Micah Neal’s plea agreement (Neal pleaded guilty rather than face trial).
According to the agreement, Neal received money from Ecclesia at Paris’ direction via an unnamed consultant (“Person C”). On pages 7-8 of the plea agreement, the arrangement is described. Entity B is Ecclesia College and Person B is Oren Paris III. Person C’s identity has not been confirmed. It has been publicly speculated in Arkansas media reports that Senator A is Jon Woods (R-Springdale).

aa. A check dated January 5, 2015 and drawn on Entity B’s Centennial Bank account ending in 0681 in the amount of$65,000 was issued to Person C’s company and deposited that same day into Person C’s company’s Arvest Bank account ending in 7761. The check was issued at the direction of Person B. Over the following three days, Person C made three cash withdrawals per day totaling $53,700 from his company’s Arvest Bank account ending in 7761.
bb. Between approximately December 19, 2014 and approximately January 30, 2015, and following Entity B’s receipt of NEAL’s and Senator A’s GIF money in the amount of $200,000, Senator A contacted NEAL and told him that Person C would be bringing $18,000 in cash to NEAL in exchange for NEAL having authorized and directed the appropriation of the GIF  money to Entity B.
cc. Between approximately December 19, 2014 and approximately January 30, 2015, and following NEAL’s communication with Senator A, Person C met with NEAL and, on behalf of Person B, paid NEAL $18,000 in cash.

According to the plea agreement, Person C paid Rep. Neal $18,000 “on behalf of Person B [Paris].”
Paris’ denial doesn’t address the reasons for the payment of $65,000 to Person C. To address this aspect of the plea agreement, Paris should identify the consultant and the nature of the payment to that person. Did Paris know that $18,000 would go to Neal? Did Neal believe Paris was involved in the scheme? Paris’ statement does not address these and other questions.
Note to my readers who write for Christian publications. Answers to these questions and eventual accountability may not come unless you all get involved. All people in this story (Neal, Woods, Paris III, Ecclesia College) claim to be evangelical Christians. There are substantial separation of church and state issues in this story as well since a non-regionally accredited Bible college* with a celebrity Board of Regents received substantial taxpayer dollars.
 
*Ecclesia College is accredited by the Association for Biblical Higher Education, a group which is recognized as an approved accrediting body by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Ecclesia students are eligible for Pell grants and other sources of federal aid. However, the school is not regionally accredited which would make transferring credits to non-faith based schools much easier.