A Better Class of Crooks (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

by Gwen Moritz  on Monday, Jan. 9, 2017 12:00 am  

It’s only been eight months since I pulled out the Moritz Scale of Political Bad Behavior, but Micah Neal’s surprise guilty plea last week is just irresistible. He gets a 5, of course, the top of the scale where all politicians convicted of crimes dwell.

I’ve never met Micah Neal, whose term as state representative from Springdale is coming to an ignominious end, but I’ve been irritated with him since he successfully passed legislation exempting local Advertising & Promotion Commission tax receipts from the state Freedom of Information Act in 2015. Those were the public records that Arkansas Business long exploited to create the lists of top-grossing restaurants and hotels that were wildly popular with our particular audience, but not with Neal, whose family has owned a restaurant in Springdale for decades.

Before Wednesday, therefore, I understood that Micah Neal was the kind of legislator who would introduce self-serving legislation that whittled away the public’s right to government data. But I had no idea that he was the kind of legislator who would direct taxpayer dollars to private entities in exchange for cash kickbacks.

Worse in its way was the relatively small size of the bribes. I mean, if you are going to use the brand-new position of trust handed to you by those suckers who voted for you, shouldn’t you sell out for more than $38,000? If you have decided to become a corrupt politician of the very sort that makes Americans distrust their government, shouldn’t the reward be worth the risk?

I’d call Micah Neal a cut-rate parasite, except I already co-opted that language from “Casablanca” to describe former state Treasurer Martha Shoffner. She got $36,000 and a 30-month exile in Club Fed. Prison is supposed to act as a deterrent, but Neal was not deterred by Shoffner’s example. Nor was his co-conspirator, a state senator the prosecutors haven’t yet identified.

The plea agreement made public last week doesn’t say exactly when he took the first payoff — $20,000 from a nonprofit associated with a health care provider, neither of which has been identified by prosecutors. But we know that it was sometime after Neal arranged for “Entity A” to receive $125,000 from the state General Improvement Fund (and the senator directed $275,000 to the same organization). And we know those funds were transferred in September 2013, four months after Shoffner was arrested for accepting bribes in exchange for state money.

The senator handed Neal the 20 grand in cash, but Neal knew it was his payment for directing public money to Entity A. Then about the time 2015 arrived — as Martha Shoffner was awaiting trial, having twice failed to have her guilty pleas accepted — the two lawmakers were doing the same thing again for the benefit of an unidentified nonprofit college in Springdale. (There’s only one: Ecclesia College.) Neal got $18,000 that time, but that’s a hefty kickback since he arranged for only $50,000 to be paid to the school. (The senator sent over another $150,000. Perhaps someday we’ll learn what his kickbacks were.)

It was a penny-ante bribery scheme, nothing clever about it. Not even a pie box. It almost makes one long for the good old days when a Nick Wilson could craft something complex and ingenious — and seven figures. Perhaps I need to add a difficulty component to the Moritz Scale.

Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.



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