Can a private college after 40 years be rebranded as a church virtually overnight, thereby exempting it from FOIA requests to see how it handled public monies it received courtesy of legislators?
If you've been following the Ecclesia College mess and the alleged kickback scheme in which the school received nearly $700,000 in the form of tax-supported General Improvement Fund grants, you know the matter is now playing out in the courts.
Former state Rep. Micah Neal of Springdale already pleaded guilty to accepting bribes to helping steer GIF monies to Ecclesia, while the school's president Oren Paris III, businessman/friend Randall Shelton Jr., and former state Sen. Jon Woods have pled not guilty to multiple public corruption charges.
Meanwhile, a related issue has arisen in the form of what strikes me and others as a constitutionally suspect attempt at rebranding Ecclesia College. With 200 students working toward associate, bachelor and master's degrees in more than a dozen majors, the Springdale college apparently has suddenly morphed into a church in the world of jurisprudence. Yet I swear the entryway sign reads Ecclesia College.
Founded in 1975, Ecclesia College (thanks in large measure to some supportive legislators) in recent years also has received thousands in GIF funds as a private work-study college needing money supposedly to expand its property. So is it now some form of fraud to instead call itself a private church and, therefore, not legally required to follow the state's Freedom of Information Act?
A leading figure in pursuing the brouhaha is Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen, who's been busy establishing himself as a champion of freedom of information. Like me, he has a few thoughts about Ecclesia's seemingly overnight mutation to avoid revealing publicly how the GIF money was used.
In McCutchen's words, a person, college or legislator with nothing to hide "also hides nothing. The Ecclesia scandal suggests some legislators do have something to hide. It revolves around the alleged misappropriation of taxpayer money that is slowly unfolding despite some legislators' efforts to obscure the Bible college's financial records. We don't have to recollect too far to remember that in the most recent election, Arkansans spoke clearly of their desire to 'drain the swamp' of corruption and special interests, which hinges on protecting transparency in government. When transparency fades, corruption overtakes the citizens' ability to hold government accountable."
McCutchen said Ecclesia, in its third attempt to stop the Washington County Circuit Court from requiring documents be turned over, resorted to claiming it's a church. But there's also an apparent constitutional flaw in that change of description (which sure sounds to me like some lawyerly wordsmithing was involved in conceiving).
"If Ecclesia College is a church," McCutchen says, "then the GIF funds violate the Arkansas Constitution because the parties involved in this grant wrongly used tax monies Arkansas citizens are required to pay in order to support a place of worship. Also, as a church it's unconstitutional because the grant monies gave preference to a religious establishment. In addition, the applications for the GIF grants contained certain state representatives and senators as co-applicants for the grants. Each application indicates those grants were for a college rather than a church.
"The reality is this 40-year-old college-turned-church maneuver is just a trick ... to continue hiding the truth from taxpayers. ... Sen. Bart Hester, another lawmaker involved in funds granted to Ecclesia, recently sponsored SB373, which would have created an attorney/client privilege for any FOIA-able documents. All they'd then have to do to withhold documents from public view is say, 'We copied our lawyer for approval on this, so these documents are exempt from your FOIA request.' More secrecy, less accountability. No ability to hold government accountable."
He adds: "The audacity of Arkansas legislators continuing to shroud themselves in more secrecy flies in the face of hardworking Arkansans who've voted for governmental change and transparency. The only way to prove there's no corruption involved in the handling of public monies given to Ecclesia College is to be transparent with all the relevant documents. But that's something some legislators clearly aren't interested in at this time. Perhaps closer to election their constituents will demand it."
I say why wait, fellow Arkansans? The time to insist on opening these public records is today, regardless of whether Ecclesia now claims it's been joking all these years by calling itself Ecclesia College instead of, say, The First United Assembly of Saint Ecclesia.
Mike Masterson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at email@example.com.
Editorial on 05/23/2017