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Ecclesia asks judge to toss records suit

by Ron Wood | March 11, 2017 at 2:47 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Lawyers for a Christian college at the center of a kickback scheme want a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the school thrown out.

Arkansas legislators gave nearly $700,000 in public funds to help the private Ecclesia College buy almost 50 acres in Benton County. The lawsuit seeks information from the college about the state money.

Ecclesia's receipt of the grant money entered the spotlight after former state Rep. Micah Neal, R-Springdale, pleaded guilty in federal court Jan. 4 to taking a pair of kickbacks totaling $38,000 for helping two entities receive grants through the state's General Improvement Fund.

Former state Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, has since been indicted on 11 counts of honest services wire fraud, one count of honest services mail fraud and one count of money laundering in the case.

Also indicted in the kickback scheme are the college's president, Oren Paris III of Springdale, and Randell Shelton Jr. of Alma, a consultant. Each was indicted on nine counts of honest services wire fraud and one count of honest services mail fraud.

The General Improvement Fund consists of unallocated state funds at the end of each fiscal year and interest earned on state deposits.

The money is passed to the state's eight economic development districts for distribution to nonprofit groups or government entities. The beneficiaries are essentially decided by the lawmakers who direct the development districts where to send the funds, according to district directors and lawmakers.

The lawsuit against the school, filed in Washington County Circuit Court on behalf of Jim Parsons of Bella Vista, contends that private organizations that receive public money, engage in activities that are of public interest, carry on work that is intertwined with that of a government body or receive grants to promote economic development are subject to the requirements of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

Parsons is chairman of the Benton County chapter of the Transparency in Government Group. He said he's a former Ecclesia board member and faculty member.

The lawsuit asks a judge to order Ecclesia to make the documents available.

The motion to dismiss filed Wednesday said Parsons' complaint is moot because a judge didn't hear it within seven days, which the motion says is required by state law. The complaint was filed Feb. 9 and was assigned to Circuit Judge John Threet.

"Defendant Ecclesia, Inc. prays for an order of the court finding that plaintiff's complaint is time-barred...and that, therefore, defendant has substantially prevailed in the action," according to the motion to dismiss filed by attorney Travis Storey.

The motion also seeks attorneys' fees.

Attorneys for Parsons said state law does not require an expedited hearing..

"Ecclesia's motion is just a tactic to stop from complying with [the Freedom of Information Act]. We are confident that the circuit court will agree," attorney Chip Sexton III said in an email. "Ecclesia's motion doesn't cite even a single case in support of its bizarre argument. And, there is absolutely no authority for the proposition that a [Freedom of Information Act] complaint that isn't heard within seven days must be dismissed."

Sexton said state law allows either side to request an expedited hearing in writing but neither side chose to do so.

Sexton said they did not request a hearing because of concerns that the seven-day time period violates the separation of powers doctrine. The Arkansas Constitution provides that the state Supreme Court has the exclusive power to write the procedural rules that apply in this type of case, and the seven-day expedited process was written by the Legislature, Sexton said.

Ecclesia officials also declined a Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette request in early February to release documents related to its receipt and expenditure of General Improvement Fund money, claiming the school is a private entity and therefore not required to release the documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

Metro on 03/11/2017

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