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Monday, December 11, 2017, 7:07 a.m.

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U.S. judge sets hearing on secret recordings in case involving former Arkansas senator

By Doug Thompson

This article was published December 7, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

former-state-sen-jon-woods-second-from-right-surrounded-by-members-of-his-legal-team-walks-into-the-john-paul-hammerschmidt-federal-building-in-fayetteville-on-thursday-nov-30-2017

Former state Sen. Jon Woods (second from right), surrounded by members of his legal team, walks into the John Paul Hammerschmidt Federal Building in Fayetteville on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017.



FAYETTEVILLE — Covertly recorded audio files will be the subject of a hearing Dec. 14 in the corruption case involving former Sen. Jon Woods, according to attorneys.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks set the hearing Wednesday concerning 79 recently revealed recordings taken by former state Rep. Micah Neal of Springdale. Neal pleaded guilty Jan. 4 to accepting kickbacks in return for state grants and is expected to testify against Woods.

U.S. attorney’s office spokesman Charles Robbins and one of the defense attorneys, Shelly Koehler of Fayetteville, confirmed Wednesday that Neal’s recordings are the subject of the Dec. 14 hearing,

Brooks said last week that he will set a trial date after this hearing to consider the impact of the new evidence. Brooks also set a hearing on other defense motions for Dec. 15, according to the court docket.

Woods of Springdale had been set to go to trial Dec. 4 with Oren Paris III, president of Ecclesia College in Spring-dale; and consultant Randell Shelton Jr. The three are accused of arranging kickbacks to Woods and Neal in return for state grants to the college.

Other covert recordings by Neal were admitted into evidence in September. Attorneys learned about the 79 additional recordings on Nov. 15, according to court documents. Knowledge of the newly disclosed recordings became public after a pretrial hearing Nov. 30. Court records credit Shelton’s defense counsel for figuring out there must be more recordings than the government obtained in its investigation.

The government will not try to use the newly discovered recordings in its prosecution, but the defense may use the tapes if the defendants wish, according to court documents.

Neal’s plea agreement says Woods, Paris, Shelton and lobbyist Milton R. “Rusty” Cranford all participated in kickbacks in return for state grants. Cranford, an executive in the now-defunct nonprofit corporation Alternative Opportunities and its offshoot, AmeriWorks, has not been charged.

The kickbacks were in return for state General Improvement Fund grants to Ecclesia College and AmeriWorks, according to the indictment and plea agreement. Woods, Paris and Shelton have pleaded innocent. Shelton passed the kickbacks for Ecclesia to the lawmakers through consulting fees paid by the college, according to the indictment.

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