Attorney advising legislative staff linked to company in kickback case

Posted: November 30, 2017 at 1:09 a.m.

Jane Duke is shown in this file photo.
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Jane Duke is shown in this file photo.

Little Rock attorney Jane Duke is advising the Arkansas Legislature's staff on how to respond to demands for records made by federal investigators. She also represents a top official in a company connected to an ongoing federal investigation into kickbacks received by state lawmakers.

Former state Sen. Jon Woods, Ecclesia College President Oren Paris III and Randell Shelton Jr. are set to stand trial beginning Monday for what the government alleges was a kickback scheme involving state grants. Paris paid fees to Shelton’s consulting firm, according to their indictment. Shelton in turn passed money to Woods and then-state Rep. Micah Neal, R-Springdale, according to the indictment. Neal pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy Jan. 4.

Woods faces 15 counts of fraud, all related to either wire or mail transfers of money. Paris and Shelton are named in 14 of the fraud charges.

All three defendants are charged with one count of conspiracy to commit fraud. Woods is also charged with one count of money laundering in connection with the purchase of a cashier’s check.

Jonathan Earl Woods, 40, won election to the state Legislature before he turned 30 and left before he turned 40. Along the way, he helped amend the state’s constitution three times and unseated an incumbent state senator.

Woods grew up in Springdale and graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in marketing in 2002. He was working as a loan officer at a bank when first elected to the state House in 2006. At the time, he was also a member of the rock band A Good Fight.

Woods, a Republican, served three terms in the state House before defeating incumbent Sen. Bill Pritchard, R-Elkins, in 2012.

He co-sponsored a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to hunt and fish, a constitutional amendment to extend term limits for legislators and set ethical standards, and a constitutional amendment to allow cities to issue economic development bonds. All constitutional amendments require voter approval in a general election. Each of those three efforts succeeded.

He did not run for re-election in 2016, but collected the largest amount of per diem, mileage and other expense payments among senators in 2015 at $33,692.

Woods also was a partner in a consulting business, Woods Enterprises, beginning in 2007, according to his statement of financial interest filed with the Arkansas Secretary of State. Woods listed income of more than $12,500 from both A Good Fight and the consulting business each year until 2014, when his expense payments from the state and wife’s salary were the only sources of income of more than $12,500, according to his filings.

Woods wife, Christina, is listed as an academic adviser with the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

Woods incorporated another business, Titan Consulting, in 2016 and listed income from the business of more than $12,500 that year.

Oren Paris III, 50, is president of Ecclesia College, whose forerunner was founded by his father.

Oren Paris II started Ecclesia Inc. Basic Ministries Program in Elm Springs in 1975, according to Arkansas Department of Higher Education documents and the college’s website.

Ecclesia is a work-learning college, which allows students to earn money toward tuition, according to the school website. It offers three associate of arts degrees, 12 bachelor degrees and one graduate degree and is accredited by the Association of Biblical Higher Education.

Paris is also a brother of gospel singer and songwriter Twila Paris. She is the winner of 10 Gospel Music Association Dove Awards and three American Songwriter Awards.

Oren Paris succeeded his father as president of Ecclesia in 1997. The elder Paris was named chancellor, a largely honorary position he held until his death in June 2012.

As president, the younger Paris expanded the campus to more than 200 acres. Arkansas legislators gave nearly $700,000 of taxpayers’ money to help Paris buy almost 50 more acres beginning in 2013, according to state and county records.

Several of Paris’ requests for state grants for the properties say they are “critically needed space” for incoming resident students. Paris didn’t respond to a request in February for enrollment numbers or how many students live on campus, but Angie Snyder, Ecclesia’s director of communications, said in a March 2016 Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette report half of the college’s 183 students are enrolled through distance learning.

Paris has incorporated two businesses in Arkansas, according to the Secretary of State’s website: Cedar Oak Properties LLC in 2016 and Roof Recovery and Recycle LLC in 2014. Both have been dissolved.

Paris is also a business partner of Randell Shelton Jr., who was also indicted in the case. Shelton listed Paris as the manager of a company he incorporated in 2015 named Shingle Resource Recycling.

Randell G. Shelton Jr., 38, is a consultant whose clients included Ecclesia College.

Shelton is identified in court documents as a friend of Ecclesia President Oren Paris III. Shelton was also a partner with Paris in Shingle Resource Recycling, a limited liability corporation, according to business records. Corporate filings with the Arkansas Secretary of State’s office list Paris as a manager and Shelton as the “incorporator” and manager.

At business meetings with at least one state agency, Shelton identified himself as the managing partner of the firm. The firm was a recycling company for discarded roofing shingles.

Shelton received $267,000 in fees approved by Paris as a consultant for Ecclesia, according to the indictment against the two men and former state Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale.

Both the shingle company and Shelton listed their address in 2015 and 2016 at 8532 Carrie Smith Road in Springdale, a 1.15 acre property bought by Ecclesia in 2013 for $230,000.

Graham Sloan, director of the Ethics Commission, named Shelton in a 2015 discussion as a potential contributor to the Conservative Arkansas Political Action Committee. The committee agreed to pay a $200 fine for filing as a PAC and not as an independent expenditure committee. The group sent mailers and bought ads in favor of candidates. Their efforts included about $4,251 paid to Target Direct on or about May 18, 2012, for a mailer in support of Woods’ successful state Senate campaign, Sloan said.

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