Oren Paris III, the president of Ecclesia College in Springdale, pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count of fraud in a corruption scandal involving kickbacks on state grants.
Paris and his co-defendants, former state Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale and their mutual friend Randell Shelton Jr. of Alma, were scheduled for trial starting Monday. As is standard in a plea deal, Paris agreed to cooperate with the government and to testify as needed.
The maximum penalty Paris faces is 20 years in prison, but his actual sentence is likely to be far less. Federal prosecutors agreed that Paris can withdraw his guilty plea if an appeals court disagrees with U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks' refusal to dismiss the case.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the trial for the remaining defendants was still scheduled to begin Monday in Fayetteville before Brooks, who on Tuesday denied Shelton's request for a separate trial.
A federal grand jury in Fayetteville indicted the three in March 2017 as part of a continuing corruption scandal involving the state General Improvement Fund. After two superseding indictments, Woods, 39, was ultimately charged with 17 counts, including wire fraud and money laundering. Paris, 49, and Shelton, 37, were charged with 15 counts each.
More: Read the plea agreement.
In his plea agreement, Paris agreed to plead guilty to the count of aiding and abetting honest services wire fraud. If the court approves the agreement, prosecutors will dismiss the other charges.
In the agreement, Paris admitted that he, on behalf of Ecclesia, "knowingly obtained GIF money for the College under materially false and fraudulent pretenses by paying Woods, through Shelton's Consulting Company, in exchange for Woods utilizing his official position and authority as an Arkansas State Senator to direct said GIF to the College."
According to the plea agreement, in August 2013, Paris forwarded Woods an application for Ecclesia to receive a $200,000 GIF grant. Woods endorsed the request and submitted it to the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District, which awarded the money to Ecclesia, a small Christian college with about 200 students.
In exchange, Paris admitted, he "caused the College to pay Shelton's Consulting Company $50,000, knowing and intending that at least a portion of that money would be paid to Woods.
"Shelton subsequently transferred to Woods $40,000 of the $50,000 received by Shelton from the College," the agreement said.
The plea agreement says the summary of the crime to which Paris pleaded guilty "does not include all of the facts know to Paris concerning criminal activity in which he or others engaged, nor does it contain all of the facts that the Government could prove in a trial against Paris."
Also Wednesday, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that former state Rep. Micah Neal, R-Springdale, is scheduled to be sentenced June 8 on charges of wire fraud, bank fraud and money laundering related to the General Improvement Fund.
Neal, 43, waived indictment and pleaded guilty in federal court in Fayetteville in January 2017 to conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, admitting that he and an unnamed state senator - later identified as Woods - directed hundreds of thousands of dollars from the GIF to two nonprofits in exchange for bribes.