FAYETTEVILLE — Attorneys in the corruption case against former state Sen. Jon Woods told a judge this morning they may have recovered missing audio files needed for evidence. But there was still room for dispute at the hearing in U.S. District Court.
FBI computer expert Amy Corrigan testified her investigation, overseen by attorneys from both the defense and the prosecution, found back up files from the crashed computer used to store secret audio recordings by former state Rep. Micah Neal.
Defense attorneys for Woods and his two codefendants have asked the judge to dismiss the case, arguing they never received a complete copy of the recordings. A previous investigation found 79 of the recordings were never turned over to the defense, the computer the government used to download those recordings had been wiped by an FBI investigator, and the computer containing the originals had crashed.
Corrigan‘s investigation earlier this month found the original recordings were on a hard drive still intact, including an 80th recording.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks is expected to rule on whether the available copy will suffice to ensure the defense team has all the evidence they are entitled to.
Neal testified earlier that he secretly recorded anyone he felt federal investigators might be interested in for most of 2016, but investigators weren’t interested, he said. Neal secretly recorded about 140 hours of conversations with Woods.
Some of the recordings were given to defense attorneys, but the defense discovered gaps in the files provided, leading to the discovery of the 80 additional recordings and the issues with the FBI laptop on which they were stored.
Also scheduled today is a contempt of court hearing for Gregory Payne, one of the defense attorneys. Payne filed a letter about the laptop on a public website in December that was covered by a protective order from the court and should have been sealed, Brooks has ruled.
Woods of Springdale; Oren Paris III, president of Ecclesia College in Springdale; and consultant Randell G. Shelton Jr., formerly of Alma, are accused in a federal indictment of participating in a kickback scheme.
Woods 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. Each are charged with one count 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 case involves grants from the state General Improvement Fund, which is controlled by legislators. The state Supreme Court declared the method of distribution unconstitutional in a ruling Oct. 5.
The Justice Department alleges Paris paid Woods and Neal of Springdale kickbacks in return for $550,000 in grants from those two legislators to his college from 2013 through 2014.
Woods is also accused of using his office to pass legislation in 2015 that would have created a special General Improvement Fund account in the state Department of Higher Education of up to $2.5 million. The fund would have benefited only Ecclesia, the indictment says. No money was ever appropriated to the account, according to the state Department of Finance and Administration.
Shelton is accused of using a consulting firm he owned as a way to pass along the kickbacks to Neal and Woods through consulting fees approved by Paris.
Neal, a Republican, pleaded guilty Jan. 4 to one count of conspiracy to commit fraud, admitting that he took two kickbacks totaling $38,000 in exchange for directing improvement fund grants to two nonprofits. He has not been sentenced.
The indictment does not give a total figure of what Woods, a Springdale Republican, is accused of receiving in kickbacks because portions of it were reportedly paid in cash.
All three defendants have entered not guilty pleas.
The three defendants face up to 20 years in prison on the fraud and conspiracy charges, if convicted. Woods faces an additional 10 years on the money laundering charge, if convicted.