Thursday, April 22, 2021

Ecclesia college ex-president’s bribery conviction upheld

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A federal appeals court has upheld the conviction of the former president of a private Christian college in northwestern Arkansas who pleaded guilty in a kickback scheme involving state legislators.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit on Tuesday upheld the three-year prison sentence of former Ecclesia College President Oren Paris III, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. Paris, convicted on one count of conspiracy, was granted the right to appeal after pleading guilty in April 2018.

Paris and consultant Randell Shelton were accused of funneling cash bribes in 2013-2014 to then-Sen. Jon Woods and former Rep. Micah Neal. In exchange, Woods directed over $715,000 in state grants to the college. The kickbacks were routed through Shelton’s consulting business, formerly based in Springdale.

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Neal pleaded guilty in Jan. 2017 to one count of conspiracy and cooperated with investigators extensively prior to the plea. Neal subsequently received one year of home confinement.

Paris resigned as president of Ecclesia and pleaded guilty just prior to the start of his trial with Shelton and Woods, who were convicted of multiple corruption charges. Woods is serving an 18-year sentence. Shelton is serving six years..

Paris, Woods and Shelton subsequently appealed their convictions, largely on the basis of FBI agent Robert Cessario wiping the hard drive of a laptop used to collect and send electronic files to defense attorneys in the case. He also had them professionally erased before turning it over to investigators after defense lawyers found he had not transferred all the files.

Cessario’s conduct was revealed in pretrial hearings in the case. Paris decided to plead guilty after the trial judge ruled against the defendants’ motions to dismiss the charges over Cessario’s actions.

Paris’ defense lawyer, Travis Story of Fayetteville, had argued to the appeal court that the solution of allowing a trial while prohibiting Cessario testimony for the prosecution is unjust.

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But the appeals court ruled that it does not appear any of the now-destroyed evidence would have changed the outcome in Paris’ case, adding that his arguments saying it would have made a difference is simply “speculation built upon speculation.”

Appeals for Woods and Shelton are still pending.

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