FAYETTEVILE — U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks told federal prosecutors Friday morning to put the full context and full strings of email exchanges into evidence in the corruption trial for former state Sen. Jon Woods.
Brooks’ ruling came after arguments away from the jury. Patrick Benca of Little Rock, Woods’ attorney, said the government had introduced single emails in isolation on a variety of topics in the trial when there are emails that contain the entire string of conversations that would provide full context.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Elser argued many of those “string” emails include names and other information that would have to be redacted.
Brooks ruled the government should introduce the full context and full strings of email exchanges, both as a matter of principle and as a practical matter to save time, even if redactions are needed.
“If you’re giving them the haystack and pulling out the needles, that doesn’t really sound fair,” Brooks said from the bench before the jury was brought in.
The emails at the center of the dispute Friday morning show that it is common for lawmakers to allow a third party to work with staff to draft measures but not without permission of the lawmaker for whom the measure is being drafted.
The ballot-approved constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana in 2016 grew out of a draft drawn up for Woods by legislative staff in 2015, according to court testimony.
Ecclesia College, a private religious school at the center of kickback allegations, would have benefited from the amendment Woods had drafted, but that portion of the proposal did not make the ballot.
Woods is on trial in federal court, accused of taking kickbacks from Ecclesia’s president at the time in return for state grants.
Northwest Technical Institute in Springdale and Crowley’s Ridge Technical Institute in east Arkansas would also have drawn a share of state sales taxes on medical marijuana under Woods’ draft proposal and are named in the draft, the defense brought out out in cross-examination Friday. Other beneficiaries were the Arkansas Historic Preservation fund and the state Department of Career Education.
Matthew Miller of the Bureau of Legislative Research testified that David Couch, an attorney in Little Rock, helped draft Woods’ proposed amendment. Couch later led the petition drive that put a legalization amendment on the 2016 general election ballot. Voters approved it.
“I’ve never done a side by side [comparison], but a lot of things appeared similar to me,” Miller said Friday, referring to the draft amendment and the ballot initiative proposal. Miller also testified that he cannot recall any party outside the Legislature or legislative staff but Couch helping in the draft of that proposal but could not guarantee that under oath.
In effect, Woods and Couch used legislative staff to write the early drafts of what became a ballot initiative and planned to use the initiative route rather than the legislative option while the resolution was being drafted, Miller said during cross-examination by Benca.
“You have a certain set of skills others do not have, correct?” Benca asked.
“You could say that,” replied Miller, who drafts all constitutional amendment proposals to go before the Legislature.
Miller’s response set off the 45-minute discussion away from the jury. Benca argued the government “cherry picked” records to introduce as evidence, particularly emails and legislative records. The government only sought emails on the draft marijuana resolution that directly concerned the defendants they are pursuing, he said, adding that the full record could show other parties such as Couch who were at least equally involved.
Woods was indicted in March 2017, accused of a kickback scheme involving grants issued in 2013 and 2014 from the state General Improvement Fund. Two alleged co-conspirators — consultant Randell Shelton, formerly of Alma; and Oren Paris III, former president of Ecclesia — were indicted with Woods. Former state Rep. Micah Neal pleaded guilty for his part in the scheme Jan. 4, 2017.
Neal was the government’s first witness in the trial, which began April 9. The trial is expected to last at least through next week.
Paris pleaded guilty April 4 to one count of conspiracy and will testify for the government. He resigned as Ecclesia’s president and from the college’s board the previous day. His sentence and Neal’s are pending. Paris disguised the kickbacks as consulting fees paid to Shelton’s company, Paradigm Strategic Consulting, according to the indictment. Shelton then passed the money back to Woods and Neal, the government contends.
Read Saturday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.