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FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has asked a judge to quash subpoenas issued to two state representatives in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against Ecclesia College.

An attorney for Rutledge's office contends Charlie Collins and Jim Dotson have legislative privilege and don't have to explain why they directed state grant money to the private, Christian college in Springdale.

Legal lingo

Quash

To nullify, void or declare invalid. The procedure is used in both criminal and civil cases when there is an irregularity or defect in procedures. A motion to quash is often made in regard to the issuance of a subpoena.

Source: uslegal.com

In all, Ecclesia College got $715,500 in state General Improvement Fund grants from 2013 to early 2015 directed by 10 lawmakers, according to federal court documents and court testimony. Dotson, R-Bentonville, is an alumnus of Ecclesia College who directed $13,500 to it. Collins, R-Fayetteville, gave the school $14,000.

In lieu of quashing the subpoenas, the motion seeks to delay any depositions by the legislators until after the Arkansas Supreme Court rules on the legislative privilege issue in an unrelated lawsuit over Fayetteville's civil rights ordinance. In that case, lawyers have sought to question legislators about their motives and intent regarding legislation. That case is pending before the Arkansas Supreme Court.

The motion in the Ecclesia case contends Jim Parsons has no standing to pursue repayment of General Improvement Fund money legislators gave Ecclesia because it has no relation to his FOIA claims against college officials. The motion contends Ecclesia has spent the money and former President Oren Paris III has been ordered by a federal judge to repay $621,500.

The motion to quash was filed Oct. 16.

Originally filed Feb. 9, 2017, the Parsons lawsuit contends private organizations receiving public money, engaging in activities of public interest, carrying on work intertwined with a government body or receiving grants to promote economic development are subject to the requirements of the state FOIA.

Parsons, who is a former Ecclesia board member, amended the lawsuit, asking the college be ordered to pay back all the grant money it received, arguing the money wasn't used for the stated purpose.

"The funds were not used for the acquisition of land for student housing, nor were they used to build student housing," according to the complaint. "Instead, the funds were used to pay kickbacks to legislators, to purchase tracts of land which defendant promptly encumbered to acquire additional funds for the personal benefit of its officers, agents and employees."

Ecclesia has contended the mere receipt of state money doesn't make the private school subject to provisions of the FOIA.

The state Department of Finance and Administration has asked Rutledge's office to sue the college to reclaim at least $600,000 of the grant money.

Ecclesia's receipt of the money entered the spotlight after former state Rep. Micah Neal of Springdale pleaded guilty in federal court Jan. 4, 2017, to a single fraud charge related to taking kickbacks in return for steering grant money to the college and another nonprofit. Neal was given probation and ordered to pay restitution.

Former state Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale; Paris; and consultant Randell G. Shelton Jr., were accused in a federal indictment in 2017 of participating in the kickback scheme.

Woods and Shelton were convicted May 3. Paris pleaded guilty April 4 and resigned as college president. All have been sentenced and reported to federal prisons. All were ordered to pay restitution.

Woods and Neal not only steered $550,000 in grants to Ecclesia directly, but the two also encouraged other lawmakers to send General Improvement money to the school. Woods also received a direct kickback for a $100,000 grant he helped obtain from another lawmaker, according to court documents.

NW News on 10/25/2018

Print Headline: Legislators claim privilege in Ecclesia FOIA lawsuit

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