World-Class Rationalization (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

by Gwen Moritz  on Monday, Mar. 20, 2017 12:00 am  

I felt queasy watching tearful Richard Johns turn around in his seat at the defense table in federal court and remind his wife and children that he loved them. The former physician was there, after all, to confess that he had written prescriptions for painkillers in exchange for cash payments from the middlemen who then resold the pills on the streets of Lonoke and White counties.

A couple of those prescriptions were for a 25-year-old man with no medical need. Curtis Norris ground up and injected six or more oxycodone pills — out of some 39,000 that Johns admitted prescribing in less than a year and a half — and died. Johns’ plea agreement with federal prosecutors didn’t require him to take responsibility for Norris’ death, and I assume he felt no responsibility since he continued selling similar prescriptions until he was arrested months after Norris’ death.

So while I watched Johns express his love for his kids, I wondered if he ever thought about how much Curt Norris’ parents loved him. I wondered how he would feel if one of his kids died because of someone else’s greed. And I wondered why he hadn’t loved his kids enough to give them an honest, law-abiding father.

Through his attorneys, Johns told U.S. District Judge Brian Miller that he couldn’t say what happened to the prescriptions he wrote after he sold them. If he didn’t know they were being filled and peddled to desperate addicts it can only be because he just didn’t let his mind go there, which is what psychologists call compartmentalizing.

I went back to the newsroom and wrote up a quick report on Johns’ plea hearing, finishing up just in time for another exercise in compartmentalization: the indictment of former state Sen. Jon Woods and Oren Paris III. Paris allegedly paid kickbacks to Woods for funneling taxpayer dollars to Ecclesia College, where Paris is president.

We were expecting it, of course. Just days earlier Arkansas Business had hinted strongly that Woods, Paris and the alleged middleman in their transactions, “consultant” Randell G. Shelton Jr., would join former state Rep. Micah Neal in the federal prosecution of corruption involving the goodie bag known as the state General Improvement Fund.

Neal decided to plead guilty to taking kickbacks before being indicted by a grand jury, so we only got limited information about the evidence against him. But Woods, Paris and Shelton didn’t waive indictment — they are scheduled to enter pleas on March 28 — so the findings of the grand jury are detailed and revealing.

Running any nonprofit organization is a constant scramble for money, especially when Paris and his family members pull out, on average, about a quarter-million a year. A Christian college with only a couple hundred students seems like it would be especially hard to keep afloat without the large mission-supporting donor base of Harding or Ouachita Baptist and without, of course, the tax dollars flowing to public colleges.

So, as described in the indictment, Paris and Woods cooked up a brilliant hybrid. Woods and Neal, whom Woods allegedly enlisted, would become Ecclesia’s mission-supporting donors, but they would do it with tax dollars. And like other vital donors to needy nonprofits, they would get some consideration in return — not their names on buildings, but cash kickbacks.

Even before Neal admitted to the kickback scheme, the GIF dollars flowing to Ecclesia looked to me like a violation of the separation of church and state. (Legally, Ecclesia is organized as a church and thus hasn’t filed public financial documents like Harding, OBU or Hendrix.) But there are many conservatives who reject the notion of separation of church and state in the first place, and it does not seem to have been illegal for GIF money to flow to Ecclesia on those grounds.

But Paris and Woods did seem to know that they needed some way to get other legislators interested in sending even more tax dollars to a completely unaccountable private religious organization. Something persuasive but without actually having to give them kickbacks.

According to the indictment, which called Ecclesia “Entity A,” Paris texted Woods: “Good selling point to conservative legislators is that [Entity A] produces graduates that are conservative voters. All state and secular colleges produce vast majority liberal voters.”

And Woods replied by text: “Agreed.”

Let that sink in: The way to justify a kickback scheme involving legislators sending hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to a church-operated Bible college was to produce literally dozens of potentially conservative voters every year. That’s some world-class rationalization.

If the “vast majority” of the thousands of students graduating from Arkansas state colleges and universities year after year are liberal voters, they sure aren’t voting in Arkansas.

Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at



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