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FAYETTEVILLE -- The federal judge in the corruption case involving former state Sen. Jon Woods on Friday set an April 9 trial date.

The trial is expected to last three weeks. A pretrial hearing is set for April 4. Hearings on motions are set for Jan. 10 and again Jan. 25.

The hearing on Jan. 10 will deal with Woods' claim of attorney-client privilege "over certain documents and disclosures," according to U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks' order. The order did not give details, and the hearing itself will be in the judge's chambers with only attorneys for Woods and for the government present, the order states.

The Jan. 25 hearing is on Randell Shelton Jr.'s motion to dismiss charges against him. Woods was indicted for, according to the government, accepting kickbacks passed through Shelton from Ecclesia College in Springdale. Shelton's consulting contract was approved by Oren Paris III. Paris, who is also charged in the case, is president of Ecclesia. He is accused of paying kickbacks in return for state grants to the private Christian college. Woods and Paris asked the court on Friday to join Shelton's motion to dismiss.

Woods, a Republican from Springdale, faces 15 counts of fraud, all relating to either wire or mail transfers of money. Paris and Shelton are named in 14 of the fraud charges. All three are charged with one count each 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.

The January hearings were originally set for Thursday and Friday. The federal government, which is prosecuting the case, asked to delay the hearings because of issues in the handling of recently revealed audio recordings, court filings show. Also, one of its investigators and the interim U.S. attorney have been summoned as defense witnesses and need time to prepare, according to the government's motion for delay, which was filed Wednesday.

Brooks set the hearings concerning 79 recently revealed, covertly recorded audio files created by former state Rep. Micah Neal, a Republican from Springdale.

Neal pleaded guilty Jan. 4 to accepting kickbacks in return for state grants and is expected to testify against Woods.

Neal's plea agreement says Woods, Paris, Shelton and lobbyist Milton "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 -- hasn't 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. Shelton passed the kickbacks from Ecclesia to the lawmakers through consulting fees paid by the college, according to the indictment. Woods, Paris and Shelton have pleaded innocent.

The government said in its request to delay the hearing that it learned information Tuesday about FBI Special Agent Robert Cessario's actions relating to the laptop computer used to access the Dropbox shared folder containing the recordings made by Neal. Dropbox is an Internet-based electronic file-sharing service.

Shelton's motion to dismiss, the one to be heard Jan. 25, is sealed and not available to the public. However, a Nov. 29 addendum to that motion is not sealed and provides details. "Cessario has had access to these 79 recordings since Nov. 2, 2016, as they are electronically stored in a shared location as other previously disclosed audio recordings," the addendum states.

The government said in a letter that it first learned about the recordings and informed defense counsel about them on Nov. 15 of this year.

"The government does not have these recordings in its possession and does not intend to obtain them unless obtained by defense counsel," the Nov. 15 letter also says.

Shelton's motion argues that the government's claim it "never obtained" the audio recordings is not true.

Asked about Cessario's role, a spokesman for the FBI headquarters in Little Rock said Thursday that this was an internal personnel matter and the agency has no further comment.

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Metro on 12/16/2017

Print Headline: Ex-Senator's trial date set in Ecclesia bribery case

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