Three years after its president resigned on his way to federal prison after participating in a state grant kickback scheme, Ecclesia College continues to deal with the fallout.
A 2018 lawsuit filed by a taxpayer in Washington County Circuit Court is moving forward to recover more than $600,000 in state money awarded to the Christian college in the bribery and kickback case that ensnared former Ecclesia President Oren Paris III.
Paris stepped down from the Springdale school in 2017, just before pleading guilty to one federal count of honest-services wire fraud. Paris, now 52 and completing his sentence at home, was sentenced to three years and ordered to pay $621,500 in restitution, the amount of public funds money the college received in the kickback scheme.
Ecclesia College, struggling to move forward, told Arkansas Business last week that Paris “no longer has a role with the school,” which his father founded in 1975. Forgiveness is a cornerstone of the school’s values, a spokesman said.
An attorney in the lawsuit, Matthew Bishop of Fayetteville, told Arkansas Business last week that Paris is the key witness in the case. Bishop represents Bryan King of Carroll County, who has been named as class representative in the lawsuit. But for the suit to move forward, Bishop must wait to depose Paris until after he has exhausted all his appeals.
“You have your Fifth Amendment rights as long as you have criminal liability,” Bishop explained, saying a premature deposition would lead Paris to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
It appears those appeals are almost over.
In March, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Paris, who had argued the indictment against him should have been dismissed by the District Court judge in light of alleged government misconduct in the case. He asked for a rehearing, but in June the 8th Circuit denied that request.
Paris is appealing that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, Bishop said.
“As long as he’s going to assert his Fifth Amendment rights, it’s virtually impossible to take a useful deposition or put him on the stand,” Bishop concluded.
Attorney Travis Story of Fayetteville is representing Paris and Ecclesia, but he didn’t return calls seeking comment.
The taxpayer lawsuit recently survived Story’s Aug. 28 motion for dismissal. Story sought dismissal on the grounds that the original plaintiff, former Ecclesia faculty member Jim Parsons of Bella Vista, said he didn’t want to continue with the suit.
Parsons, 87, told Arkansas Business that he didn’t want Paris “to suffer anymore” and thought the three-year prison sentence was enough.
“I had talked with him, and we both are friends,” said Parsons, who still hopes the action succeeds in recovering taxpayer money.
Bishop asked Circuit Court Judge John Threet to replace Parsons as the plaintiff with King, a former state legislator from Green Forest, and the judge did so on Oct. 13. A trial date hasn’t been set.
Meanwhile, Ecclesia College seems to have forgiven Paris. “Walking in forgiveness and extending mercy are two core values of our faith and we graciously endeavor to employ them to all people and in all circumstances,” said Mike Novak, the college’s director of advancement. Novak responded via email to questions from Arkansas Business.
In the fall of 2016, Ecclesia said it had 209 students. It then saw that number steadily decline to 150 students in the fall of 2019. In the fall of this year, the school reported 168 students. (The Arkansas Department of Education told Arkansas Business that Ecclesia reported 194 students in the fall of 2019. Both agreed on the 168 students this year. Novak said the enrollment numbers provided to Arkansas Business are correct.)
“Several indicators suggest to us that we are on a positive trajectory going forward,” Novak said in the email. “We have good reason to expect additional increases going forward.
“Unfortunately, over the years, the school has been the subject of quite a bit of inaccurate reporting and false assumptions and, in some cases, flat out untruths,” he said. “Combatting such misinformation takes time and patience.”
He didn’t list in the email any examples of the misinformation.
Novak said that many of Ecclesia’s students are the first in their families to attend college. “Our focus remains on providing them with an affordable Christ-centered education,” he said. “Our students participate in our work program, which helps them reduce their college bill significantly.”
He said that on average Ecclesia graduates leave the school with about a third of the debt that traditional college graduates have. “They also give back to their communities every semester by engaging in meaningful community service projects,” he said.
Parsons Gets Involved
Parsons’ involvement in Ecclesia began in 2003, when he started teaching physical education, while his wife, Jody, taught English.
Paris placed the Parsonses on the school’s board, Jim Parsons said.
The Ecclesia board experience was starkly different from his time serving on the board of a community college.
“Boards have regular meetings, usually once a month, and board members are usually brought to speed with how the money is being spent, what’s going on,” Parsons said. “At Ecclesia, the four of five years my wife and I were on the board, we never had an official board meeting.”
He said the only time the board members gathered was when an accreditation team from the Association for Biblical Higher Education came to campus for a visit.
“I thought that was kind of strange, but I thought, well, the Paris family developed the college. … They were going to do whatever they were going to do because they owned the college.”
The Parsonses stopped teaching at Ecclesia in 2009. As of last week, Parsons said he wasn’t sure if he’s still on the board. “I’ve never received a letter or anything that I’m off the board,” he said.
Novak, however, said Parsons has never been nominated to the college’s board or served on it. He said Parson had served on the school’s community advisory council.
Throughout, Parsons kept an eye on the school. In early 2017, Parsons said, he was hearing the “scuttlebutt of a kickback” scheme involving the college.
He said he had sent Paris an Arkansas Freedom of Information request to see documents tied to the money the school received from the state’s General Improvement Fund grants. GIF was state money legislators could direct to local projects through a process found to violate the state constitution.
Paris declined to hand over the records, saying the school is private. “And I was kind of offended by that,” said Parsons, who argued that the documents related to taxpayer funds were public. “If you don’t get an answer back, you assume they’re hiding something.”
Parsons filed a lawsuit in Washington County Circuit Court in 2017 to get the records.
But it soon became clear why Paris hadn’t handed over the documents.
In March 2017, a federal grand jury in Fayetteville indicted Paris, former state Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale and their mutual friend Randell Shelton Jr. of Alma in connection with the corruption scandal involving the state fund. In total, the GIF corruption scandal also ensnared a half-dozen former state legislators and an influential lobbyist, Rusty Cranford.
Paris agreed to plead guilty to the count of aiding and abetting honest services wire fraud, but preserved his rights to appeal. 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.”
Woods was sentenced to 18 years in prison and Shelton was sentenced to six years.
At his sentencing hearing in 2018, Paris told U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks that he had felt pressure to raise money for Ecclesia and fell for the promises of Woods.
Paris also said he agreed to give 10% of any money delivered to the school to Woods, an arrangement he said he had made with other fundraisers.
Later, Paris said, the percentage he handed over was as much as 50%. “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.”
Ecclesia hired Randall Bell to replace Paris. Bell had worked for nearly 40 years with the Association for Biblical Higher Education.
Parsons said Bell “seems to be doing a good job and they seem to keep on trucking.”
After Parsons filed his FOI lawsuit, the suit was amended in 2018 to call for recovery of the money Ecclesia received from the GIF.
Parsons said he learned that Paris had been released earlier this year and was serving time at home. Parsons said he decided to give Paris a call and thought Paris was going to be angry with him because of the lawsuit.
Instead, Paris “was very conciliatory, very warm to me,” Parsons said. “That’s why I let him off the hook” and removed his name from the lawsuit.
“We are Christian brothers, and one of our obligations is to forgive,” Parsons said. “We all make mistakes, and he paid for his.”
Ecclesia College Sells Property
Ecclesia College of Springdale has been selling its property that was bought in 2013 with the help of the kickback-tainted money from the state’s General Improvement Fund.
In May 2019, the college sold a 2,239-SF house at 8523 Carrie Smith Road in Springdale for $290,000.
The college had bought the property for $230,000 in 2013 and used it as a rental home.
Also in 2019, Ecclesia received $127,000 for selling two pieces of property that it acquired in 2013.
Mike Novak, the college’s director of advancement, said in an email to Arkansas Business that those parcels of land were sold “in cooperation with adjacent property owner requests to purchase property from us.” He said the land might have remained unusable to both owners “due to interior access to the property.”