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story.lead_photo.caption Jon Woods (from left) Randell Shelton Jr. and Oren Paris

FAYETTEVILLE — Hearings in the corruption trial of former state Sen. Jon Woods were reset for Jan. 10 and Jan. 25, U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks ordered this morning.

The hearing on Jan. 10 will deal with Wood’s claim of attorney-client privilege “over certain documents and disclosures,” according to Brooks’ order. The order did not give details, and the hearing itself will be in the judge’s chambers with only attorneys for Woods and for the government present, the order states.

The Jan. 25 hearing is on Randell Shelton Jr.’s motion to dismiss charges against him. Woods was indicted for accepting kickbacks passed through Shelton, a consultant, paid by of Oren Paris III. Paris, who is also charged, is president of Ecclesia College in Springdale. He is accused of paying kickbacks in return for state grants to Ecclesia, a private christian college.

Shelton’s motion to dismiss is sealed and not available to the public.

The hearings were originally set for today and tomorrow. The federal government, which is prosecuting the case, asked to delay the hearings because of issues in the handling of recently revealed audio recordings, court filings show. Those issues were not specified in publicly released court documents.

Also, one of its investigators and the interim U.S. attorney have been summoned as defense witnesses and need time to prepare, the government’s motion for delay, which was filed Wednesday.

Brooks set the hearings concerning 79 recently revealed, covertly recorded audio files created by former state Rep. Micah Neal of Springdale. Neal pleaded guilty Jan. 4 to accepting kickbacks in return for state grants and is expected to testify against Woods.

The government learned information Tuesday about FBI Special Agent Robert Cessario’s actions relating to the laptop computer used to access the Dropbox shared folder containing the recordings, the government said in its request to delay the hearing. Dropbox is an internet-based electronic file-sharing program.

“This information requires disclosure to the court and all parties prior to any hearing on the matter,” Wednesday’s motion says. The motion didn’t detail Cessario’s actions. The U.S. Attorney’s office had no comment Wednesday, and neither did defense attorneys when asked Wednesday.

“The government needs additional time to investigate legal and factual issues relating to the newly discovered information that impacts Special Agent Cessario and his potential testimony,” the motion reads.

Also, defense attorneys for Woods plan to call both Cessario and interim U.S. Attorney Kenneth Elser as witnesses in the hearing set for Friday, the motions says. The government needs time to prepare, it argues.

The case was set to go to trial Dec. 4, but was indefinitely delayed after the 79 additional recordings by Neal were revealed on Nov. 15. The judge said in court orders last week he hopes to set a trial date after the hearings.

The first batch of covert recordings by Neal were admitted into evidence in September. Knowledge of the newly disclosed recordings became public after a pretrial hearing Nov. 30. Court records credit Shelton’s defense counsel for determining there must be more recordings than the government obtained in its investigation.

The government won’t try to use the newly discovered recordings in its prosecution, but the defense may use the recording files if the defendants wish, according to court documents.

Neal’s plea agreement says Woods, Paris, Shelton and lobbyist Milton R. “Rusty” Cranford all participated in kickbacks in return for state grants. Cranford — an executive in the now-defunct nonprofit corporation Alternative Opportunities and its offshoot, AmeriWorks — hasn’t been charged.

The kickbacks were in return for state General Improvement Fund grants to Ecclesia College and AmeriWorks, according to the indictment and plea agreement. Woods, Paris and Shelton have pleaded not guilty. Shelton passed the kickbacks for Ecclesia to the lawmakers through consulting fees paid by the college, according to the indictment.

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

The General Improvement Fund, which is controlled by legislators, consists of state tax money left unallocated at the end of each fiscal year and interest earned on state deposits. Each legislator is given a share of the fund to be directed to a nonprofit group or government entity.

In a motion filed in September, Gregory F. Payne, an attorney for Paris, asked the judge to suppress statements Woods made to federal investigators implicating Paris. Woods told Neal in one of the secretly recorded calls that his attorney, W.H. Taylor, repeatedly berated him to tell the truth during the interview, Payne’s motion says.

The motion goes on to contend Woods was coerced to implicate Paris by federal investigators and Taylor. It questions whether Taylor had a conflict of interest because he also represented Cessario, who was likely present during the interview, in a civil matter. Taylor said in September it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the allegations in the motion.

The motion contends Woods’ coerced statements led directly to the investigation resulting in Paris being indicted and, if the statements are thrown out, the government has no basis to prosecute Paris.

Woods’ defense counsel has maintained for months that the taking of statements and the investigation is flawed. Woods’ attorneys filed a Sept. 19 motion informing the court it would call an expert witness, Richard Leo of the University of San Francisco School of Law, to testify that the government uses “psychological coercion” to obtain “false and unreliable confessions.”

NW News on 12/14/2017

Print Headline: Hearings in corruption trial delayed indefinitely

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