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Ex-Arkansas senator's fiancee paid $70,000 a year after firm given state grant, jury hears

By Doug Thompson

This article was published April 24, 2018 at 12:52 p.m.

former-state-sen-jon-woods-right-surrounded-by-members-of-his-legal-team-waves-nov-30-as-he-walks-into-the-john-paul-hammerschmidt-federal-building-in-fayetteville

Former state Sen. Jon Woods (right), surrounded by members of his legal team, waves Nov. 30 as he walks into the John Paul Hammerschmidt Federal Building in Fayetteville.

Then-Sen. Jon Woods’ fiancee got a $70,000-a-year salary from a company that received a $400,000 state grant four months earlier. Her replacement’s salary was exactly half that amount, according to court testimony and personnel documents presented in court on Tuesday.

Woods is accused of accepting kickbacks for such grants. The prosecution is expected to rest this week. The trial began April 9.

Christina Mitchell, who married Woods on June 14, 2014, was hired as an on-the-job trainer for Dayspring, a behavioral health provider, testified Tammy Pierce of Fayetteville, Dayspring’s personnel director at the time. Mitchell’s first day at work was Feb. 24, 2014. She left on June 20 of the same year.

In addition to the salary, Mitchell and her successor were paid a $300 a month for mileage allowance and cell phone reimbursement.

At the defense’s request, U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks instructed the jury to regard Pierce’s testimony only as evidence against Woods and not against his co-defendant, Randell Shelton. Shelton played no role in that grant, the government acknowledges. His defense argued unsuccessfully for a separate trial.

Although hired by Dayspring, Mitchell primarily worked with clients of Decision Point, a sister company that has its headquarters in the same Bentonville building, Pierce testified. Decision Point is a substance abuse treatment center. Mitchell’s duties were to help Decision Point clients get and keep employment.

Overseeing both Dayspring and Decision Point was Milton Russell “Rusty” Cranford, a lobbyist who was also the chief executive officer for their parent company.

“Who had the final decision on who was hired for this position?’ Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Elser asked about Mitchell’s hiring.

“Rusty Cranford,” Pierce replied.

In another development, a juror in the case fell ill on Tuesday and was replaced by one of the jury’s two alternates. Brooks told the jurors the replaced juror was not sure he could sit through proceedings the whole day. Taking a day off at this point would jeopardize plans to finish the trial next week, Brooks said.

Woods is on trial in federal court in Fayetteville. He is charged with taking kickbacks in return for awarding state General Improvement Fund grants to nonprofits. One of those grants was for $400,000 to AmeriWorks of Bentonville, a grant that includes a portion approved by then-state Rep. Micah Neal.

Cranford accepted the AmeriWorks grant Sept. 26, incorporated the nonprofit Sept. 27 and deposited the $400,000 check Sept. 30, grant and state incorporation records show. Cranford is under federal indictment in Missouri for nine unrelated bribery charges.

Dayspring received the 2013 grant on AmeriWorks’ behalf because Cranford’s company didn’t have the nonprofit tax status required for a private company to receive a General Improvement Fund grant, according to grant records and court testimony.

The defense contends state legislators making deals with each other is neither illegal nor unusual.

The amount of money Woods is accused of receiving as a kickback isn’t specified in the indictment. It claims much of that money was paid in cash, except for one transaction made to Woods by wire transfer for $40,000.

Woods faces 15 counts of fraud, all relating to either wire or mail transfers of money. Oren Paris III, former president of Ecclesia College, and Shelton were named in 14 of the fraud charges. All three were charged with one count of conspiracy to commit fraud. Woods is also charged with one count of money laundering in connection with the purchase of a cashier’s check.

Neal pleaded guilty Jan. 4, 2017, for his role in the scheme and was the government’s first witness in the case. Neal said he received $20,000 delivered by Woods for steering $125,000 to AmeriWorks. Grant records show Woods directed $275,000 to the company. Neal’s sentence is pending.

Read Wednesday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.

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Comments on: Ex-Arkansas senator's fiancee paid $70,000 a year after firm given state grant, jury hears

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Displaying 1 - 2 of 2 total comments

TimberTopper says... April 24, 2018 at 2:24 p.m.

How nice! He's nothing but a common thief! The same as those he worked with in this scheme.

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mrcharles says... April 25, 2018 at 2:18 p.m.

Guess she was no stormy.

Is she liable for anything? She knew she was doing wrong.

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