A former Arkansas college president was sentenced to three years in prison Wednesday in a kickback scheme involving state grants for his school.
U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks also sentenced Oren Paris III, to three years of probation upon release.
Brooks noted Wednesday monring before announcing the prison term that the final sentencing report gave Paris some credit for pleading guilty, but not much. Cooperating defendants usually receive credit in the form of a suggested reduction in their sentences, Brooks noted.
Five witnesses testified on Paris’ behalf Wednesday, speaking of good works by Paris both on a personal level and in charity. Those witnesses included Paris’ sister, noted gospel singer Twila Paris Wright.
“I believe with all my heart that Oren’s overarching goal in life is to please God,” she told the judge. “I also believe that after going through this trying time, he will stay very, very far away from anything that might be unlawful.”
Paris, former president of Ecclesia College in Springdale, faced up to 20 years in federal prison.
Paris resigned as president and a board member of the college the day before pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit fraud in April. Paris changed his plea five days before going to trial, two-and-a half hours before his last pre-trial hearing and after a year of declaring his innocence.
Paris conspired with then-state Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale in 2013 and 2014 to steer state General Improvement Fund grants to Ecclesia, a small, private Christian college founded by his father. Mutual friend Randell G. Shelton Jr., a consultant, acted as a go-between.
Shelton created a company called Paradigm Strategic Consulting as part of the scheme. Paris then contracted the consulting firm without the knowledge of Ecclesia’s governing board. Then-state Rep. Micah Neal of Springdale joined in. Woods and Neal not only steered $550,000 in grants to Ecclesia directly, the two encouraged other lawmakers to send Improvement Fund money to the school.
Shelton received a six-year sentence for his role last week. Woods was sentenced to more than 18 years the day before Shelton’s sentencing.
In all, Ecclesia College got $715,500 in state Improvement Fund grants from 2013 to early 2015. Woods and Neal are the only two of the 10 lawmakers who steered grants to Ecclesia who were implicated in the kickback scheme.
Read Thursday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.