Former Arkansas Sen. Jon Woods, Ecclesia College president accused of fraud in federal indictment

From left, former state Sen. Jon Woods and Oren Paris III, president of Ecclesia College
From left, former state Sen. Jon Woods and Oren Paris III, president of Ecclesia College

SPRINGDALE — A federal grand jury has indicted former state Sen. Jon Woods and two others on 10 counts each of mail and wire fraud.

The indictment also names Oren Paris III and Randell G. Shelton Jr. Paris is president of Ecclesia College, though the school is not named in the indictment.

Shelton is identified as the incorporator and sole member of an unnamed consulting company and a friend of Woods and Paris.

Woods also is indicted on one count of money laundering and two additional counts of mail and wire fraud.

Former state Rep. Micah Neal, R-Springdale, pleaded guilty Jan. 4 to taking a pair of kickbacks worth $38,000 for helping two entities receive improvement fund grants.

Neal’s plea agreement says he requested a $50,000 grant be given to a private college in Springdale and an unnamed senator would request $150,000 for the school. The only grant Neal directed for $50,000 to a private college was for Ecclesia, according to records from the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District, which administers the fund. His grant was awarded Dec. 18, 2014, a day after Woods directed a $150,000 grant to Ecclesia, according to the records.

Woods also directed $200,000 to Ecclesia on Sept. 27, 2013.

Nine Northwest Arkansas legislators requested $592,500 for the school. Woods directed the most at more than $350,000.

Another $100,000 from the fund to Ecclesia came through the West Central Arkansas Planning and Development District in Hot Springs. The only documents from legislators provided by that district in support of the grants came from Woods.

Paris and Shelton were named in a federal subpoena issued to the development district Oct. 23, 2015,

Paris has declined to comment. He hasn’t responded to four messages, an in-person request at the college nor an email. A Facebook post attributed to him says he can “assure you that neither I nor anyone associated with Ecclesia College has ever participated or engaged in any activity to provide money to Mr. Neal or any other legislator in exchange for the receipt of those funds.”

He also stated “every effort was made to comply with every aspect of the law as we understood it.”

The General Improvement Fund is made up of unallocated state tax money at the end of each fiscal year and interest earned on state deposits. Each legislator is given a share and can earmark where he or she wants it to go as long as it goes to a nonprofit group or government entity. The money is administered through one of the state’s eight economic development districts.

Arkansas legislators gave nearly $700,000 of taxpayers’ money to help Ecclesia College buy almost 50 acres although it already owned more than 200 acres, according to state and county records.

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The private Christian college in Springdale used state improvement fund grants to help buy two proprieties in 2013, both for well over their county-appraised value, Benton County records show.

Ecclesia said in its grant applications it needed the land for student housing to accommodate rapid growth in its fall 2013 and fall 2014 enrollments, but the Springdale building department shows no new buildings or structural renovation have occurred on the properties.

Several of the current and former legislators who directed money to Ecclesia said they did so because they support the college's mission.

Ecclesia College is a work-learning college, which allows students to earn money toward tuition and graduate with much less debt than the average university student, according to the school website. It offers three associate of arts degrees, 12 bachelor degrees and one graduate degree. The school was founded in 1975.

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