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College sued to release papers on cash tied to kickback probe

by Ron Wood | February 10, 2017 at 3:06 a.m.
NWA Democrat-Gazette/ANTHONY REYES @NWATONYR Ecclesia, a private Christian college, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017 in Elm Springs. The college has been buying many parcels of land over the past several years for"expansion."

FAYETTEVILLE -- A Freedom of Information lawsuit was filed Thursday against Ecclesia College seeking documents about state money the school received.

Arkansas legislators gave nearly $700,000 of taxpayers' money to help the Springdale college buy almost 50 acres of land in Benton County.

Sunshine law

The intent of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act is to provide access to information in an open and public government, one of the hallmarks of a democratic society. On Feb. 14, 1967, Arkansas adopted one of the strongest and most comprehensive Freedom of Information Acts in the nation. It gives residents an opportunity to look at a broad array of information at every level of government and to observe the actions of our government leaders. It also promotes and protects the right of individuals to attend the meetings of policy-making, tax-supported bodies.

Source: Arkansas Freedom of Information Handbook

Ecclesia's receipt of the grant money entered the spotlight after former state Rep. Micah Neal, R-Springdale, pleaded guilty in federal court Jan. 4 to taking a pair of kickbacks worth $38,000 for helping two entities receive grants through the state's General Improvement Fund.

The lawsuit, filed in Washington County Circuit Court on behalf of Jim Parsons of Bella Vista, contends private organizations that receive public money, engage in activities that are of public interest, carry on work that is intertwined with that of a government body or receive grants to promote economic development are subject to the requirements of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

"The purpose of filing this lawsuit is not to get anyone punished, rather, it is to draw attention to the need for Arkansas to have a law that will make nonprofit organizations that have an annual gross income of over $200,000 to be subject to the provisions of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act," Parsons said in an emailed statement.

The complaint says Parsons first requested the documents via email Jan. 22. After receiving no response, he sent another request by certified mail Jan. 28 and the school "has failed or refused and continues to fail and refuse to produce such documents," the complaint says.

Attorney Travis Story emailed Joey McCutchen, an attorney from Fort Smith who filed the complaint for Parsons, on Monday denying the records request.

The lawsuit asks a judge to order Ecclesia to make the documents available.

John Tull, the attorney who represents the Arkansas Press Association in Freedom of Information matters, said he thinks the public should be entitled to see what Ecclesia did with the money.

"The complaint obviously identifies the most difficult issue for the plaintiffs which is whether or not it's intertwined with government bodies," Tull said. "The law is not clear on that issue, although on first blush I find it hard to believe that a private entity that receives General Improvement Funds is not a public entity at least for those funds and the related documents associated with those funds."

Parsons is chairman of the Benton County chapter of Transparency in Government Group. He said he is a former Ecclesia board member and faculty member.

McCutchen said he filed in Washington County Circuit Court because the corporate headquarters for Ecclesia is in Washington County.

Ecclesia wasn't directly named in the federal court documents, but Neal's plea agreement says he requested $50,000 in General Improvement Fund money be given to a private college in Springdale and an unnamed senator would request $150,000 for the school.

The only grant Neal directed for $50,000 to a private college was for Ecclesia, according to records from the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District, which administers the improvement fund. His grant was awarded Dec. 18, 2014, a day after former state Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, directed a $150,000 grant to Ecclesia, according to the records.

Woods also directed $200,000 to Ecclesia in September 2013.

Ecclesia College is a work-learning college, which allows students to earn money toward tuition and graduate with less debt than the average university student, according to the school website.

A federal subpoena to the development district received Oct. 23, 2015, requested "all documentation related to any General Improvement Fund disbursements" related to Ecclesia College, Oren Paris III, Woods and Randell Shelton. The subpoena didn't mention Neal or give any contact information for Shelton. Paris is the college's president and son of its founder.

Woods has declined requests for comment since Neal's plea. Neal directed all questions since his guilty plea to his attorney, Shane Wilkinson of Bentonville. Wilkinson has also declined to comment.

Paris also has declined numerous requests for comment. A Facebook post attributed to him says he can "assure you that neither I nor anyone associated with Ecclesia College has ever participated or engaged in any activity to provide money to Mr. Neal or any other legislator in exchange for the receipt of those funds."

Ecclesia officials also declined a Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette request earlier this month to release documents related to its receipt and expenditure of improvement fund money, claiming the school is a private entity and not required to release the documents.

The General Improvement Fund is made up of unallocated state tax money at the end of each fiscal year and interest earned on state deposits. Each legislator is given a share and can earmark where he or she wants it to go as long, as it goes to a nonprofit group or government entity. The money is administered through the state's eight economic development districts.

General Improvement Fund agreements say the grants are to be used to "assist local public governmental jurisdictions and/or non-profit organizations to plan, develop, promote and/or implement economic and community development projects/activities designed to improve the economic, community and/or social well-being of the citizens of Arkansas."

Metro on 02/10/2017

Print Headline: College sued to release papers on cash tied to kickback probe


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