Ex-Arkansas college president now in prison; he’s denied bid to stay free as he appeals kickbacks case

Posted: October 11, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Oren Paris III (left), ex-president of Ecclesia College, walks alongside his wife, Cari Paris in this November 2017 file photo.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Oren Paris III, former president of Ecclesia College, reported to federal prison Wednesday in Marion, Ill., after the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied his request to remain free on bond pending his appeal, his attorney said.

Paris pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy in the kickback scheme benefiting then-state Sen. Jon Woods and then-state Rep. Micah Neal, both of Springdale. Under the scheme, Ecclesia College received state General Improvement Fund grants directed by the two lawmakers. Paris then paid fees to consultant Randell Shelton Jr. of Kemp, Texas, who passed along kickbacks to Woods and Neal.

In all, including grants by lawmakers who are not implicated in the scheme, the private Christian college in Springdale received $715,000 in state General Improvement Fund grants from 2013-15.

Paris was sentenced Sept. 12 to three years in federal prison, followed by three years of supervised release. Barring a successful appeal, he must pay $621,500 in restitution for grants involved in the kickback scheme. He must also pay a $100 special assessment.

Paris pleaded guilty five days before his trial with Shelton and Woods began. His plea includes a provision allowing him to continue his appeal, claiming that the charges never should have been filed because of problems with the case. Those problems include an erased computer hard drive that was used to gather evidence.

The appeal motion states that U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks should have followed the "conditional language" of Paris' plea agreement, which said the U.S. attorney's office would not oppose Paris' request to remain free on bond while his case was on appeal.

Paris' attorneys also claim that government prosecutors violated the plea agreement by raising an unjustified doubt on whether Paris met the conditions to qualify for release pending appeal. Brooks denied a motion Friday to leave Paris free on bond.

Paris poses no risk of flight or to the community if left free, Tuesday's motion contends. A three-judge panel of the appeals court in St. Louis denied the motion hours before Paris was to report to the federal Bureau of Prisons, according to Paris' attorney, Travis Story of Fayetteville.

Paris reported to the minimum security satellite camp in Marion, Ill., by 1 p.m. Wednesday, Story said.

Woods, who with Shelton was convicted by a federal jury in May, started serving his prison sentence of 18 years and four months on Sept. 26 at a prison in Fort Worth. Brooks had denied Woods' request to remain free while appealing his conviction. Woods is ordered to pay $1.6 million in restitution, forfeit $1 million in assets and pay a $1,500 special assessment.

Neal pleaded guilty in January 2017 and agreed to testify against his co-conspirators. Neal was sentenced Sept. 13 to three years of probation, including a year of house arrest, and was ordered to pay $200,000 in restitution.

Shelton was sentenced Sept. 6 to six years in federal prison, followed by three years of supervised release. He is required to pay $660,698 in restitution, a separate $664,000 money judgment and a $1,200 special assessment. He reported Monday to a prison near Beaumont, Texas.

State Desk on 10/11/2018