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story.lead_photo.caption The exterior of the Decision Point Alcohol and Drug Treatment Services Thursday Dec. 8, 2011 in Bentonville.

SPRINGDALE -- Decision Point Inc. of Bentonville received the $400,000 state grant referred to in state Rep. Micah Neal's guilty plea this week on accepting kickbacks, the nonprofit's parent company said Friday.

Decision Point and its affiliated companies repaid the money in full in 2014 and paid no kickbacks, the current parent company said in a prepared statement. That full repayment was confirmed Friday by the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District, which issued the grant. The district provided a copy of the Aug. 13, 2014, repayment check.

Decision Point's parent company is Preferred Family Healthcare of Kirksville, Mo. Decision Point received the grant before the 2015 merger that made Preferred Healthcare the Arkansas company's parent organization. The Arkansas company that merged with Preferred Family Healthcare in 2015 and repaid the grant in 2014 is Alternative Opportunities Inc., which has locations around the state and includes Decision Point.

"We have thoroughly conducted an internal review to confirm that no PFH or Alternative Opportunities funds were involved in any kickback," said the statement from Preferred Family Healthcare spokesman Reginald McElhannon. Alternative Opportunities became the Arkansas branch of Preferred Family Healthcare after the 2015 merger.

Decision Point had planned to pass the $400,000 grant from the state General Improvement Fund to a company named AmeriWorks. Decision Point provides substance abuse counseling and other behavioral health services. Decision Point was considering collaborating with AmeriWorks and obtained the state grant in anticipation of that but did not go ahead with those plans, McElhannon said.

"We have fully cooperated with the government and have provided all materials and information in our possession concerning GIF funds relating to the entity AmeriWorks," Friday's statement from Preferred Family Healthcare said.

Neal pleaded guilty Wednesday to taking two kickbacks worth a total of $38,000 in return for his help in obtaining two state grants. One grant was described in court documents as a $400,000 grant to a nonprofit corporation for workforce training. The other was for $200,000 for a private college in Springdale.

The grants were awarded in 2013 and 2014. Neither recipient was named in court documents, but both were described.

Both grants came from state General Improvement Fund balances and were distributed through the nonprofit Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District, based in Harrison. A 2015 audit report of the district contains a list of all recipients of general improvement money in 2013 and 2014.

Preferred Family Healthcare confirmed that Decision Point received the $400,000 grant.

Ecclesia College in Springdale is the only college that fits the description in court documents as a nonprofit corporation that received at least $200,000 in General Improvement Fund grants, according to the audit list.

Both Preferred Family Healthcare and Ecclesia College deny paying kickbacks.

AmeriWorks was incorporated as a nonprofit entity Sept. 27, 2013, according to its filing at the secretary of state's office. The business address was 602 N. Walton Blvd. in Bentonville. That address is the street address of Decision Point's location in Bentonville.

The registering agent was listed as Milton R. Cranford, and the corporate officers were listed as David Hayes and Cranford. No contact information was given for the company or either of the listed officers, and attempts to find contact information were unsuccessful Friday.

Court documents in Neal's plea agreement say that "Entity A" was a nonprofit corporation that "purportedly sought to create manufacturing jobs in northwest Arkansas, specifically for a specialized workforce including disabled veterans, disadvantaged youth and individuals recovering from substance abuse. Entity A was associated with 'Entity A-1,' which was a health care provider with facilities in western Arkansas and elsewhere. Preferred Family Healthcare has facilities in five states providing a variety of health care services.

The investigation that resulted in Neal's guilty plea is not over, according to the economic development district's director.

"The district is a victim, is not under investigation and had no knowledge that any funds were being misdirected by anyone at any time," Director Joe Willis said in a statement released Friday. "The district understands that this is an ongoing investigation as it relates to other unnamed parties."

The U.S. Justice Department has not responded to requests for more information about the investigation, including whether more people are expected to be charged. The Justice Department and the Internal Revenue Service conducted the investigation that led to Neal's plea.

Neal's plea implicates an unnamed state senator as someone who facilitated the kickbacks, court documents say. The senator is described in the documents as serving "in the Arkansas Senate from 2013 to the present. Prior to his service in the Arkansas Senate, Senator 'A' serves as a representative in the Arkansas House of Representative from 2007 to 2012."

Four members of the state Senate have political careers that fit that description. Two of those live at least 200 miles from the entities that paid the kickbacks.

Of the two from Northwest Arkansas, Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, dropped out of his re-election bid last year. Woods said Wednesday afternoon after Neal's plea that he had no comment. Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, also fits the description and lives in Carroll County. King denied any involvement.

Neal and the unnamed senator cooperated to steer a total of $400,000 to "Entity A," according to court documents. The checks were sent by the development district to Decision Point, development district records show. The senator gave Neal $20,000 in cash after the checks to Decision Point were issued, court documents said.

The $400,000 refund check from an affiliate of Preferred Family Healthcare was accompanied by a letter to the district's director at the time. The letter said the grant was to Decision Point, doing business as Ameriworks. The letter was obtained through the state Freedom of Information Act. The letter was signed by Rusty Cranford, who was statewide director of Alternative Opportunities Inc. at the time.

State Desk on 01/07/2017

Print Headline: Returned district's $400,000, firm says; It denies paying grant kickbacks

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