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Gavel-to-Gavel Obsession (Gwen Moritz Editor’s Note)

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I had intended to write more this week about the findings of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners’ biennial study on occupational fraud and abuse. It’s always a great reminder of just how common and costly embezzlement and other forms of workplace fraud are.

But that will have to wait another week, because right now I am utterly obsessed with another kind of fraud and abuse — the public corruption being described in fascinating, horrifying detail in a federal courtroom in Fayetteville.

As all Arkansans should be, I am indebted to Doug Thompson of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for providing exclusive gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial of former state Sen. Jon Woods and Randell Shelton, the alleged middleman in a scheme to kick back a portion of state General Improvement Fund grants directed to private Ecclesia College.

Oren Paris III, president of the tiny Bible college in Springdale, was indicted with Woods and Shelton, but he pleaded guilty before the trial began on April 9. Former state Rep. Micah Neal pleaded guilty to his participation more than a year ago, but has not yet been sentenced.

From legislative working papers that were made public April 19 only because they were presented as evidence in the trial, we learned that in 2015 Woods used staff time at the Bureau of Legislative Research to draft several bills for the benefit of Ecclesia. For government to spend so much energy on a private college is disturbing enough, but here’s the weirdest part: Woods had the BLR draft a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana. And to tax it. And, of course, to route some of the tax revenue to Ecclesia.

Last Monday, we got more context (my favorite word) when IRS Special Agent John Munns read text messages between Woods and Paris into evidence. Woods was having his marijuana amendment drafted at the same time Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Jonathan Dismang, president pro tempore of the Senate, were making it known that the GIF gravy train was about to end. Ecclesia — which had paid Paris and members of his immediate family and their spouses more than $1 million between 2012 and 2016 — needed a new source of revenue, and private money didn’t seem to be an option.

According to Thompson’s account of the texts, in print and on Twitter, Gov. Hutchinson laughed when Woods told him about his idea for a tax on medical marijuana that would benefit Ecclesia. The governor, according to Woods’ text, didn’t think Paris would like that idea and was surprised when Woods assured him otherwise.

In a reply to one of Woods’ texts, Paris crafted one of the most jaw-dropping rationalizations I have ever seen: “I think it is great to take money from Satan and [the] Kingdom of darkness and put it to [a] Kingdom of God use,” Paris wrote.

Let that sink in. Medical marijuana is satanic, according to Paris, so their great idea was to encourage more people to use it by making it legal.

As I have noted in this space previously, using Jesus to rationalize corruption is depressingly common. But enabling a satanic enterprise in order to launder the money for Jesus — well, that’s a heavy lift. No surprise that it was a two-man job.

Meanwhile, then-Sen. Woods was also allegedly taking kickbacks from a lobbyist/health care executive named Rusty Cranford. The mental health care provider he worked for — I have to resist the temptation to make jokes about that — has changed ownership, but it has done business in Arkansas under the name Dayspring.

Testimony last week revealed that Cranford instructed Dayspring to hire Woods’ fiancee shortly after Woods arranged $400,000 in GIF grants to a related nonprofit that Cranford created (on the very day the checks were cut). It would be easier to believe that she just happened to be the best candidate for the job, which paid her an annualized salary of $70,000, if this little nugget hadn’t also come out in court: Christina Mitchell left Dayspring after four months, a week after she married Woods in June 2014, and her successor was paid half as much.

Before you tell me that’s just the free market in action, let us acknowledge that none of these people was interested in letting the free market decide whether Ecclesia College or Cranford’s nonprofit would live or die. They were counting on public money and conspiring to get it.

Woods’ marijuana amendment never went anywhere. Instead, an amendment initiated by voter petition was adopted in 2016.

Email Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, at GMoritz@ABPG.com and follow her on Twitter at @gwenmoritz.
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