Ecclesia College Woes Multiply Under Federal Investigation

by George Waldon  on Monday, Aug. 7, 2017 12:00 am   4 min read

Ecclesia College in Springdale is entering a fall semester unlike any other in its 42-year history as a ministry school, Bible college and Christian liberal arts college. Its president, Oren Paris III, faces criminal charges in connection with fraudulently obtaining public funds for the tiny private college.

Paris has denied wrongdoing and received a vote of confidence from the Ecclesia Board of Governance.

The criminal investigation that produced charges against Paris, two former state legislators and a lobbyist/consultant attracted increased financial scrutiny of the college by the U.S. Department of Education. An investigation of Ecclesia by the DOE’s Office of the Inspector General dates back at least eight months. Beyond acknowledging the ongoing investigation, the OIG declined to talk about it.

Ecclesia is the only school under investigation by the OIG among 545 currently listed as under some level of remedial supervision by the federal Department of Education. The rural college with a 2016-17 student head count of 208 has operated under heightened cash monitoring by the Department of Education for more than a year.

The monitoring arrangement presents cash-flow challenges as Ecclesia now must disburse its own funds to cover student expenses normally covered by federal student aid and then seek repayment from the Department of Education.

Paris and the college his family founded and control also are battling two lawsuits in state court.

One case filed in Washington County Circuit Court by Don Thompson, a former Ecclesia staff member, alleges Ecclesia violated federal rules for students working at the college and questions the uniform enforcement of the college’s honor code, among other things.

Another case seeks to open Ecclesia financial records to full public inspection since the private school accepted state money. The lawsuit claims the college should be subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act despite counterclaims Ecclesia is exempt because it operates under the banner of a church.

“We need to win this one and establish that people should answer FOIA and be transparent,” said Jim Parsons, an 84-year-old retiree, political gadfly and former Ecclesia instructor and board member.

The government’s 43-page follow-the-money indictment alleges that Paris paid kickbacks masquerading as consulting fees during 2013-15 to lobbyist Randell Shelton Jr. of Alma.

Some of those tens of thousands of dollars allegedly flowed to then-Sen. Jon Woods and then-Rep. Micah Neal as a reward for their help in funneling to Ecclesia College hundreds of thousands of dollars in state General Improvement Fund grants administered through the Northwest Economic Development District.

Special funding legislation that only benefited Ecclesia is included in the alleged conspiracies outlined in the indictment.

Neal pleaded guilty to public corruption charges Jan. 4 in advance of the March 1 indictment. Paris, Shelton and Woods entered pleas of not guilty as the case moves toward a Dec. 4 trial.

Ecclesia’s GIF pipeline was shut down in October 2015 when the Northwest Economic Development District was served with a grand jury subpoena for records related to the college.

That effectively killed a GIF grant application for $250,000 to be used as a scholarship match of federal work learning funds.

The indictment largely swirls around a pair of $200,000 GIF grants from the NWAEDD. The money was linked with the college’s purchase of more than 48 acres in two deals totaling more than $1.1 million. The details of the real estate transactions are sometimes at odds with details of the grant documentation.

Since succeeding his namesake father as president of Ecclesia in 1997, Oren Paris III substantially expanded the college’s land holdings. Under his leadership, Ecclesia invested more than $750,000 to double its land ownership with the addition of 114 acres during 1997-99.

The college’s holdings expanded westward with 78 acres in Benton County and 36 acres in Washington County. This land joined 66.7 acres that Ecclesia assembled for $63,000 during 1976-80.

Individually, Paris also acquired land in the area during 2004-05, which he flipped in a $494,000 transaction in February 2005. The property was near a drawing-board interchange for U.S. Highway 412 Bypass becoming a reality.

The long-planned but never-funded highway project was finally given the green light in November 2012, when voters approved a 10-year half-cent sales tax to bankroll the Connect Arkansas Program. The $100.6 million first-phase construction of the project, also known as the Springdale Northern Bypass, is creating a new major intersection where it crosses Highway 112.

Easements and right-of-way acquisition involving 1.7 acres owned by Paris and his wife, Cari, yielded $319,000 in deals coordinated by the Arkansas State Highway Commission.

Land values where the Paris family has lived for years and established Ecclesia are receiving a boost courtesy of the bypass. Increased values are reflected in the prices Ecclesia paid for property south of the 112-bypass interchange scheduled to open in 2019.

According to the first application for a $200,000 GIF grant in August 2013, Ecclesia would use the money “to purchase a 23-acre parcel of land with an existing student resident hall adjacent to the [college’s] existing property necessary to provide critically needed space for incoming resident students beginning fall of 2013.”

Real estate records indicate the college bought a 23-acre tract that adjoins its property in November 2013 for $675,000. According to real estate records, Ecclesia borrowed $480,000 to finance the transaction, suggesting the $200,000 grant was used to buy the property.

However, that becomes muddled because Paris portrayed the purchase as a $565,000 transaction in grant documentation.

The “existing student resident hall” on the property is a 3,186-SF house. The use of converted homes for student housing is a normal part of Ecclesia operations.

A recent visit to the property indicates the house/resident hall is in need of repairs and might not be habitable.

The second $200,000 GIF grant, made in December 2014, also is problematic.

The funding was to be used for a “25.5-acre property acquisition to provide much needed additional student residence and work learning facilities.”

The only Ecclesia property matching that description was already owned by the college when the grant application was made. Bought in December 2013 for

$500,000, the property has a 2,556-SF house, a metal-clad pole barn, two sizable sheds and four large chicken houses.

Another 2013 Ecclesia acquisition, a 2,339-SF house on nearly 3.5 acres at 8523 Carrie Smith Road bought for $230,000, is the only college-owned property in Benton County that is not exempt from real estate taxes.

None of Ecclesia’s seven parcels in Washington County is carried on the books as exempt from real estate taxes.

Four parcels are in Elm Springs. Two adjoining properties, labeled commercial, are home to The Mercantile, an antique and crafts store at 103 Water Ave.

On a combined 10 acres, the other two adjoining Elm Springs parcels are labeled residential. This property, which bears an address of 211 School St. on tax records, contains a 3,956-SF multifamily structure and a 2,450-SF house.

The college’s three adjoining parcels at the northwest corner of Water Avenue and Weston Street are carried on the tax rolls as agriculture land. The combined 36.2 acreage is dominated by pasture.

In March, Ecclesia filed a property tax exemption request for all of its Washington County holdings, except The Mercantile.

 

 

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