Arkansas State Senator Sentenced to 220 Months in Prison in Bribery Case Involving Ecclesia College; UPDATE: Former President Sentenced to Three Years in Prison

UPDATE (9/14/18) – Oren Paris III, former president of Ecclesia College, was sentenced on September 12 to three years in prison for his part in the bribery and kickback scheme described below. He will also have to pay $621,000 in restitution.  Paris originally claimed innocence but then bargained with prosecutors for a reduced sentence. In essence, Paris helped to redirect taxpayer funds to state legislators in exchange for some of those funds being diverted to Ecclesia.


Last year, I wrote some posts about a bribery case in Arkansas involving a State Senator, a State Representative and the president of Ecclesia College, Oren Paris III. Despite being a small college, Ecclesia has some big names on one of their boards, including David Barton and Eric Metaxas.

Initially, Paris and his board proclaimed innocence. However, he eventually pleaded guilty and will be sentenced on September 12. This press release from the Department of Justice’s U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Arkansas announces a very strong sentence against the State Senator involved Johnathan Woods. Those involved concocted a scheme to secure taxpayer funds through kickbacks and bribes.

The press release below provides a good summary of the situation. To get more background see also these posts.


Thursday, September 6, 2018

Former Arkansas State Senator Sentenced To 220 Months In Federal Prison For Wire Fraud, Mail Fraud And Money [Laundering]

Fayetteville, Arkansas – Former Arkansas State Senator Johnathan Woods was sentenced today to 220 months in prison for organizing and leading a bribery scheme in which state funds were directed to non-profit entities in exchange for kickbacks, many of which were funneled through a consultant’s business, announced U.S. Attorney Duane “DAK” Kees for the Western District of Arkansas, Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, FBI Special Agent in Charge Diane Upchurch and IRS Special Agent in Charge Tamera Cantu.

On May 3 2018, a jury found Jonathan E. Woods, 41, of Springdale, Arkansas, guilty of 15 counts, including conspiracy, honest services wire and mail fraud, and money laundering.  In addition to his prison sentence, U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks of the Western District of Arkansas sentenced Woods to serve three years of supervised release and ordered Woods to pay $1,621,500.00 in restitution.

“Today’s sentence is the result of very hard work by the assigned Assistant United States Attorneys and the special agents from the IRS and the FBI”, said United States Attorney DAK Kees.  “We both respect and appreciate the judgment of the Court and the sentence that Judge Brooks ordered today.  This sentence should send a message to the people who would abuse the trust of Arkansas voters and citizens.  It should serve as a serious warning to those who would intentionally steal money from taxpayers and use their elected office to both commit and conceal their crimes.  As I stated after the jury trial concluded, my office, along with the Criminal Division from the Department of Justice, will continue to investigate, pursue and prosecute public corruption cases in Arkansas in order to ensure the fairness and justice that the people of Arkansas deserve.”

“Jonathan Woods abused his position as an Arkansas State Senator and betrayed the public trust by taking bribes and kickbacks,” said Assistant Attorney General Benczkowski.  “This conviction demonstrates the commitment of the Department of Justice and our federal partners to investigate and prosecute public officials who misuse their authority to benefit themselves at the expense of the citizens they pledged to serve.”

“Jonathan Woods violated the public’s trust and misused his authority for the purpose of lining his own pockets,” said Special Agent in Charge Diane Upchurch with the Little Rock FBI Field Office, “We are proud of the commitment of our partners at the United States Attorney’s Office of the Western Division, the IRS, and the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section.”

According to the evidence presented at trial, Woods served as an Arkansas State Senator from 2013 to 2017.  Between approximately 2013 and approximately 2015, Woods used his official position as a senator to appropriate and direct government money, known as General Improvement Funds (GIF), to two non-profit entities by, among other things, directly authorizing GIF disbursements and advising other Arkansas legislators – including former State Representative Micah Neal, 43, of Springdale, Arkansas – to contribute GIF to the non-profits.  Specifically, Woods and Neal authorized and directed the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District, which was responsible for disbursing the GIF, to award a total of approximately $600,000 in GIF money to the two non-profit entities.  The evidence further showed that Woods and Neal received bribes from officials at both non-profits, including Oren Paris III, 50, of Springdale, Arkansas, who was the president of a college.  Woods initially facilitated $200,000 of GIF money to the college and later, together with Neal, directed another $200,000 to the college, all in exchange for kickbacks.  To pay and conceal the kickbacks to Woods and Neal, Paris paid a portion of the GIF to a consulting company controlled by Randell G. Shelton Jr., 39, of Alma, Arkansas.  Shelton then kept a portion of the money and paid the other portion to Woods and Neal.  Paris also bribed Woods by hiring Woods’s friend to an administrative position at the college.

Shelton also was found guilty by a jury on May 3.  He was convicted of 12 counts, including conspiracy and honest services wire and mail fraud, and is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 6.  Paris pleaded guilty on April 5, before Judge Brooks to one count of honest services wire fraud, and he is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 12.  Neal pleaded guilty on Jan. 4, 2017, before Judge Brooks to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, and he is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 13.

The FBI and IRS Criminal Investigation investigated the case.  Trial Attorney Sean F. Mulryne of the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section and First Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Elser and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kyra Jenner and Aaron Jennen of the Western District of Arkansas prosecuted the case.

Incidentally, Judge Brooks is also the presiding judge in the Gospel for Asia case.

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Image: Fair use from Ecclesia College website

9 thoughts on “Arkansas State Senator Sentenced to 220 Months in Prison in Bribery Case Involving Ecclesia College; UPDATE: Former President Sentenced to Three Years in Prison”

  1. I knew I heard this judge’s name before. This could be an interesting prelude to the GFA case also in his court. GFA is at least this corrupt which makes me wonder what the special master has been finding digging into that. We probably will not have to wait too much longer as the discovery phase is supposed to end soon by the schedule Judge Brooks has set up.

  2. This is the fruit of Christian Nationalism: Abuse of power, personal enrichment, deeds done in darkness, lies to cover it up. Was there really any evangelical goal in this mess, or just corrupt cash for the cronies?

    Ecclesia is a danger to the democracy. David Barton is training up a whole generation of right-wing political agents who intend to rise to power and take over the “seven mountains”. When they claim God has ordained their mission, the corruption/false piety combo won’t be far behind.

    1. It is, more generally, also the fruit of unchallenged authority? I’m afraid that I know of other kinds of churches where there are such problems in various forms and to various degrees, and, from what I can see, the common theme is the lack of checks, balances and proper scrutiny, regardless of the prevailing ideology of the church in question.

      The “God has called me to do this” line can be a way to short-circuit the processes that an honest (and Christian) appraisal of human nature deems to be necessary. It is, of course, to be expected that Christian Nationalism, and any other totalitarian religious political system, will fail to take account of the truth of the human condition; they are slaves to ideology, whereas truth and morality are essentially relational (Matt 7 : 12).

  3. An important aspect missing from all the coverage of this crime is the affiliation between Ecclesia College and Youth With a Mission (YWAM). For those not familiar with YWAM, it was one of the first 7 Mountain Dominionist (Christian Nationalist) programs conceived, although YWAM prefers the term 7 Spheres. This is a massive organization. They have over 15k full time volunteers serving in their 1,100 ministry locations in over 180 countries. YWAM runs over 25K students through their program every year.

    While at YWAM, kids are encouraged to take classes at their YWAM University of the Nations (UofN), which is completely unaccredited, and rightfully so. YWAM serves mainly as a gap year here in the US for kids who want to see the world, but their families and friends will only fund their world travels if it has “Jesus” tied in somehow. YWAM kids serve as free labor for YWAM, but remarkably, YWAM still manages to charge the kids’ families a load of money to work for free. Thus enters the need for college credit, in order to justify the expense.

    Since the UofN courses are unaccredited, Ecclesia has stepped in and in the past, for an additional fee, they recognized the UofN course work and allowed it to count for a degree at Ecclesia. It’s win-win since they take in cash while providing no services for the UofN coursework, then get a kid roped into paying for more Ecclesia courses when they return stateside, if they want any of their credits to count for anything. Ecclesia College lacks regional accreditation so basically their credits won’t transfer outside of Ecclesia.

    This FRAUD has impacted the degrees of potentially tens of thousands of kids. This is not the first major financial fraud scam involving a YWAM school either. Earlier this year, the CFO of UofN in Hawaii was sentenced to 9.5 years for stealing over $3M by using a similar construction contract scheme. It seems the CFO Pablo Rivera was trying to emulate Pat Robertson. He preferred to buy his loads of diamonds directly, but used much of the $3M to buy gold mines, plus some plastic surgery and other lavish lifestyle items. Who knows how much additional theft is tied to that organization?

    Christian Nationalism is fraught with con artists and outright fraudsters. They see the pickings as easy and they jump right in to exploit well meaning Christians. They also believe that other Christian law enforcement officials and politicians will protect them from prosecution.

    The United States needs more FBI and IRS agents and judges like they have in AR. How silly and stupid of the Parises to not simply cross the border into Texas where Christian financial fraudsters are ignored by those who betray their oaths of office in the interest of not upsetting the Christian Right. I hope Judge Brooks gives Paris the maximum sentence possible to send a message to others who use the name of Christ to scam people out of money. I also hope the prosecutors bring up the Ecclesia connection to YWAM, so the Judge will consider the scale of influence that the Parises had over the youth of this nation. Poor GFA. They wisely based themselves in TX yet are still facing justice in Judge Brooks’ court in AR, courtesy of the Dixons and the Murphys.

  4. What’s a little more corruption here or there. Perhaps they will receive presidential pardons. I wish I could say that was strictly in jest, but those days of relative sanity are behind us now.

    1. Definitely not in jest. It was the first thought I had when I read the original story. If Ecclesia College is tainted with crime, then their Board members will get splashed with that same sewage. Metaxas is a regular Trump courtier. With Trump handing out pardons to criminals who aren’t even in prison anymore, like Ted Cruz’s close friend, Dinesh D’Souza, it won’t be that difficult for Trump to give Paris a pass. Unmerited pardons, however, do come with a cost.

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