Former AR State Senator Indicted for Bribery, Fraud

SPRINGDALE, Ark. — Former State Senator Jon Woods (R-Springdale) has been indicted in connection to a public corruption scandal involving a pair of northwest Arkansas nonprofit groups. Woods is one of three people whose indictments were unsealed Thursday.

Woods is accused of steering hundreds of thousands of dollars of state money from the General Improvement Fund (GIF) to Ecclesia College, a private university in Springdale, and a nonprofit corporation that operates the school. In exchange, he allegedly received $40,000 in kickbacks.

Also indicted Thursday were Ecclesia College president Oren Paris III, and Randell Shelton, Jr., described in court documents as a consultant and friend of Woods’s and Paris’s.

Woods is the second former state lawmaker indicted in connection to this scheme. Former State Representative Micah Neal (R-Springdale) pleaded guilty in January to taking $38,000 in bribes in exchange for directing GIF money to the same nonprofit groups.

According to the indictment unsealed Thursday, Woods and Neal received payments that originated from the GIF funds they directed to Ecclesia College through a consulting arrangement with a company set up by Shelton. In total, Ecclesia College and the nonprofit that operates it received $600,000.

The indictment indicates that political interests may have been at play, in addition to the financial aspects. A text message conversation detailed in the documents shows that Paris pushed Woods to encourage other lawmakers to support Ecclesia College in 2013. “Good selling point to conservative legislators is that [Ecclesia] produces graduates that are conservative voters. All state and secular colleges produce vast majority liberal voters.” Woods replied by saying, “Agreed.”

The indictment also lists other unnamed conspirators; it is unclear if others will be charged in this scheme.

Woods, Paris, and Shelton are charged with 12 counts of mail and wire fraud. They’re scheduled to be arraigned in Fayetteville on March 28th.

This statement from Jon Woods' Attorney Patrock Benca was released Friday, March 3:
 
"Senator Woods is innocent of any wrong doing. I had faith that the investigating agencies would draw the correct conclusion that Senator Woods has committed no crime. Unfortunately, the indictment combines and selects unrelated events and conversations in an attempt to connect dots that are not linked and portrays standard grant request procedures, followed by all legislators, as somehow unique and illicit. Where evidence does not exist, gross assumptions have been inserted to weave a narrative that ensures a biased, slanted, and misrepresented ending. Senator Woods would never abuse the trust and position given to him by his constituents. I am confident that once all of the facts are presented to a jury of Senator Woods’ peers that he will be found innocent of all charges brought against him.”

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