A penitent Oren Paris III was sentenced Wednesday to three years in federal prison for his role in a corruption scandal involving kickbacks on state grants.
Paris, the former president of Ecclesia College in Springdale, pleaded guilty in April to one count of honest services fraud. U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks also sentenced Paris to three years of supervised probation after his release and ordered him to pay $621,500 in restitution, the amount of funds that Ecclesia received in the scheme.
Paris, 50, addressed the court in a 15-minute speech during which his voice wavered with emotion, most noticeably when he spoke of how he had tarnished the names of his late father and grandfather. He said the Bible tells of how a good name is more important than riches, a lesson he failed.
“I stand before you humiliated and humbled,” Paris told the court. “My poor choices brought hurt, brought hardship, stress and challenge.
“I’ve brought shame and pain to that name with my lack of wisdom in dealing with those involved in this case.”
The sentence came just days after his co-defendants, former state Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale and their mutual friend Randell Shelton Jr. of Alma, were sentenced to 18 years in prison and 6 years in prison, respectively.
As is typical in a plea deal, Paris had agreed to cooperate with the government and to testify as needed. Duane "Dak"Kees, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, said Paris' guilty plea helped the case against Woods and Shelton although the government decided against using Paris as a witness.
“My father always told me if you dance with the Devil, you’re going to get burned,” Kees said in an address to the court. “He danced with the Devil, he danced with Jon Woods, and he got burned.”
Paris said he felt pressure to raise money for Ecclesia, a small, private college, and fell for the promises of Woods. Paris said he agreed to give 10 percent of any money delivered to the school to Woods, an arrangement he said he had made with other fundraisers.
Later during the scheme, Paris said the percentage he handed over was as much as 50 percent.
“I can see now my trust was greatly misplaced,” Paris said. “All I can see now is a path of destruction my actions have caused.”
After Woods was elected to the state senate in 2013, he introduced Paris to Shelton at a lunch at Neal’s Cafe in Springdale. Neal’s Cafe is owned by the family of former state Rep. Micah Neal, who pleaded guilty in January 2017 for participating in the same scheme; Neal’s sentencing is scheduled for Thursday.
Paris said every time he signed a payment invoice to send a portion of the GIF money to Woods and Shelton, he understood he was in the wrong.
“I take full responsibility for my actions,” Paris said. “I regret with my whole heart my role in the scheme that has brought us where we are today. Even though Jon Woods and Randell Shelton Jr. have gone before me, there is no one to blame for my current situation other than myself.
“I should have said No. I should have stopped this, but I did not. I knew what we were doing and I am ashamed of what we did.”
The courtroom in the John Paul Hammerschmidt Federal Building in downtown Fayetteville was filled with family, friends and supporters of Paris. Five character witnesses, including former Tyson Foods CEO Donnie Smith, spoke on Paris’ behalf in asking for leniency from Brooks, who said he had received more than 100 letters in support of Paris.
Smith said he met Paris a decade ago and found him to be a “God-centered” man who acted on his convictions. Smith said he respected Paris for his work to advance the kingdom of God.
“This is a guy I believe in and I trust and I support,” Smith said.
Paris’ defense attorney, Travis Story of Fayetteville, had asked for probation and said Paris’ willingness to trust people was his downfall. Story said he was confident there was a “zero chance” Paris would commit any more crimes.
“I can’t think of a person who needs less deterrence to reoffend,” Story said. “Northwest Arkansas is a better place having Oren not incarcerated. It’s a better place with Oren.”
Kees said he was not going to criticize or counter any of the positive character stories and anecdotes brought up about Paris. He said, though, Paris deserved punishment for his actions.
“Justice is tempered with mercy,” Kees said. “Mercy is not tempered with justice. The justice must come first.”
Brooks said federal sentencing guidelines called for a term of between 87 and 108 months and stressed to Paris how his crime clearly called for jail time as opposed to probation. Brooks said Paris had until Oct. 10 to report to prison; Paris requested he serve his time in Seagoville, Texas, just southeast of Dallas, which coincidentally is the same facility Shelton requested.
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, 41, was ultimately charged with 17 counts, including wire fraud and money laundering. Paris and Shelton, 37, were charged with 15 counts each.
More: Read Paris' plea agreement.
In his plea agreement, Paris agreed to plead guilty to the count of aiding and abetting honest services wire fraud, and 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.