Former state Rep. Micah Neal was sentenced to three years of probation for his role in a kickbacks scheme involving Ecclesia College in Springdale.
Neal, 43, pleaded guilty in January 2017 to a conspiracy to commit honest service fraud for receiving $38,000 in the scheme. Neal was sentenced to one year of home detention, during which he can only leave for work, medical or religious reasons, and ordered to perform 300 hours of community service and pay $200,000 in restitution.
“It was a pipe dream,” said Neal outside of court about avoiding prison time. “I never thought it would happen, but I was at peace with whatever happened.”
Neal waived indictment and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, who credited Neal’s pivotal role in obtaining convictions or guilty pleas from his three co-conspirators. Neal is the second former legislator to be sentenced; last week, former state Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Two others involved in the conspiracy, consultant Randell Shelton Jr. of Alma, and former Ecclesia College President Oren Paris III, were sentenced to 6 years in prison and 3 years in prison, respectively. Neal’s cooperation kept him out of prison. He originally faced a sentence that federal guidelines called to be between 108 and 135 months.
Prosecutor Dak Kees, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, asked U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks to reduce the sentencing guidelines by 10 levels — which translated to 71 to 89 fewer months — because of Neal’s quick and complete cooperation.
Kees joked that Neal was so cooperative, approaching prosecutors with an offer to confess even before he was indicted, that he saved the government money, including that of an envelope and stamp for sending investigation letters to him.
What wasn’t a joking matter was the 10-level reduction request. Brooks had hammered away at previous defendants, including criticizing Paris for delaying his guilty plea until just before his trial had been scheduled to begin. Brooks said he had never reduced a guideline by more than seven levels for a defendant’s cooperation.
He did for Neal, saying the former politician’s help had played a major role in the convictions and guilty pleas not just in his case but others.
"The court has never seen the level and extent of cooperation demonstrated by Mr. Neal in this case," Brooks said. "Literally Mr. Neal's cooperation is largely responsible for many of the indictments, guilty pleas and convictions. It has been pervasive."
When Kees addressed the court to make a pitch for a sentence he found appropriate, he was clearly reluctant to press for prison time. He said the situation was a “conundrum of justice” to balance the need for punishment while providing encouragement to current and future defendants to cooperate.
“I don’t know; I hope to God you do,” Kees told Brooks about how to find the proper balance. “Micah Neal has done more [cooperating] than I have ever seen in my career. He has told the truth since Day One.”
Brooks asked Kees after his remarks what the government’s position on probation would be if that turned out to be the sentence. Kees said he wasn’t asking for it but said there was “ample evidence for it.”
Neal’s attorney, Shane Wilkinson, said he felt a little sheepish asking for probation after the previous three defendants had received Brooks’ abject refusals. Wilkinson said Neal’s political position, which made the crime more egregious in the court’s eyes, was the “elephant in the room.”
“He was the only defendant to come forward; he did it three years ago,” Wilkinson said. “He didn’t need to see the mountain of evidence to do the right thing.
“He took two bribes and confessed to both of them.”
Wilkinson said Neal’s acceptance of his guilt and whatever consequences meant that he was ready to accept jail time, as well.
“I don’t want to make it easier for you to send him to jail,” Wilkinson said.
Neal began sobbing when he attempted to address the court to ask for leniency and admit his criminal behavior. He apologized to his friends and family, many of whom were in court, and especially to his wife, Cindy, for “three years of turmoil and disgrace.”
“This is not what you signed up for,” Neal said, turning to his wife, who had told Brooks her husband was “the heart of our family.”
Neal also apologized to the state legislature, in which he had served four years, for giving it a “black eye.”
After court was dismissed, Neal spoke to the media in the lobby and apologized again.
“I’m glad there is some closure for my family and everyone involved,” Neal said. “I am so sorry for what I did, and I will work as hard as I can to restore some faith in me.”
Kees indicated that Neal's cooperation continues.
"He has done everything we've asked, and we asked a lot," Kees said. "His cooperation is not over with."
Neal's move to waive indictment and plead guilty to conspiracy to commit honest services fraud in January 2017 sent shockwaves through the state political establishment, signaling a wide-ranging investigation into how GIF were distributed.
In his plea, Neal admitted that he and a then-unnamed state senator, later identified as Woods, directed money from the state's General Improvement Fund to a pair of nonprofits in exchange for bribes.
Those nonprofits were Ecclesia College and an entity called AmeriWorks, affiliated with Preferred Family Healthcare and its lobbyist, Rusty Cranford. Cranford has pleaded guilty to corruption charges in a separate but related federal investigation in Missouri.
Neal received about $38,000 in kickbacks, according to the Justice Department, admitting that between January 2013 — his first month in the Legislature — and January 2015, he and Woods used their official positions to direct $600,000 in state GIF funds to the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District, which then distributed it to the two nonprofits.
During Neal's sentencing, Kees said a harsh sentence for Neal would have hurt his efforts to secure more witnesses in future investigations. He told Brooks that, "I need more defendants like Mr. Neal. I don't need more defendants like Mr. Paris."
Neal, whose family owns Neal's Café in Springdale, was first elected in 2012 and did not seek re-election in 2016.