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February 21, 2018

Hearing set in kickback case

Hearing set in kickback case

FAYETTEVILLE — A new hearing is set for 9 a.m. Dec. 14 in the kickback…

FAYETTEVILLE — A new hearing is set for 9 a.m. Dec. 14 in the kickback case involving former Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, the federal court docket showed Wednesday.

A court order issued Friday by U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks said he would set such a hearing on the matter of 79 recently revealed, covertly recorded audio files taken by former state Rep. Micah Neal, also R-Springdale. Neal pleaded guilty on Jan. 4 to accepting kickbacks along with Woods in return for state grants. Brooks’ order from Friday said he will set a new trial date after this hearing to consider the impact of the new evidence.

Woods had been set to go to trial last Monday along with Oren Paris III, president of Ecclesia College in Springdale; and consultant Randell Shelton Jr. The three are accused of arranging kickbacks to Woods and Neal in return for state grants to the college. Neal pleaded guilty Jan. 4 to one count of conspiracy to commit fraud. Shelly Koehler of Fayetteville, attorney for Shelton, confirmed Wednesday afternoon that the new hearing is in regards to the newly discovered audio.

Covert recordings by Neal were admitted into evidence in September. However, the existence of more recordings became known to attorneys in the Woods’ case on Nov. 15, according to court documents.All parties agreed an evidentiary hearing would be proper, but only after the parties got an opportunity to review the newly discovered evidence, Brooks’ order from Friday reads.

Knowledge of the newly disclosed recordings became public after a pretrial hearing Thursday of last week. Court records specifically credit Shelton’s defense counsel for figuring out there must be more recordings than the government obtained in its investigation.

The government will not try to use the newly discovered recordings in its prosecution but the defense may use the tapes if the defendants wish, according to court documents.

Neal’s plea agreement says Woods, Paris, Shelton and lobbyist Milton R. “Rusty” Cranford all participated in kickbacks in return for state grants. Cranford, an executive in the now-defunct nonprofit corporation Alternative Opportunities and its offshoot, AmeriWorks, has not been charged.

The kickbacks were in return for state General Improvement Fund grants to Ecclesia College and AmeriWorks, according to the indictment and plea agreement. Woods, Paris and Shelton have pleaded innocent. Shelton passed the kickbacks for Ecclesia to the lawmakers through consulting fees paid by the college, according to the indictment.

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.

All three 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.

Legislators controlled the distribution of General Improvement Fund grants until recently. The fund consists of state tax money left unallocated at the end of each fiscal year and interest earned on state deposits. Each legislator was given a share of the fund to be directed to a nonprofit group or government entity. The state Supreme Court declared this method of distribution unconstitutional in a ruling Oct. 5.

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. All three may also be ordered to forfeit any money or property obtained through their actions, if found guilty.

Commentary on 12/07/2017

Source: Hearing set in kickback case

Hearing set in kickback case


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