The other shoe dropped today.
After Arkansas state representative Micah Neal was indicted for his part in a kickback scheme involving Western Arkansas non-profits, including Ecclesia College, speculation mounted that state senator Jon Woods would also be indicted. The fate of others mentioned in the Neal indictment was not as clear. However, today a federal grand jury released indictments of Woods, Ecclesia College president Oren Paris III and their mutual friend Randell Shelton, Jr. Read the indictment here.
According to the indictment, Neal, Woods, Shelton and Paris conspired to defraud the citizens of Arkansas.
The purpose of the arrangement was to enrich all of those indicted. From the indictment:
The indictment spells out in detail the communications between Paris, Wood and Shelton.
Despite the indictment, Ecclesia’s board is standing by their man. A couple of hours ago, the college posted the following letter on their Facebook page.
Ecclesia College also lists a Board of Regents with notable Christians such as Pat Boone, David Barton, and Eric Metaxas.
Just a little while ago, this statement appeared on the Ecclesia College Facebook page:
Ecclesia CollegeEcclesia has previously released a statement regarding the Micah Neal plea agreement and will not be issuing any further statement at this time.
You can read the prior statement denying any wrongdoing here.
For more on Ecclesia College and the Arkansas bribery scandal, read here, here, here, here, here, and here.
I suspect Ecclesia’s attorneys have advised anyone associated with the college not to speak about the matter since there is an ongoing investigation.
Yesterday, Max Brantley at the Arkansas blog posted results of his freedom of information request from the state government. He was able to get emails regarding funds funneled to Ecclesia College as well as the subpoena to the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District from investigators looking into the Arkansas bribery scandal.
I found one email especially interesting. In it, the NWAEDD sent a listing of grants issued by the District to Ecclesia College. See it below:
The figures add up to $621,000, mostly for property acquisition. Thus, the taxpayers of Arkansas have helped to purchase land for a church (which the college is according to the IRS). Something seems very wrong about this.
In the material Brantley received, it is clear that Oren Paris III, the president of Ecclesia College, is being investigated in some fashion. The subpoena requests all communications and documentation regarding the General Improvement Fund grants. Most likely, Paris and Ecclesia will remain silent about the matter until the investigation is completed.
In fact, Ecclesia College is a part of a church called Ecclesia, Inc.
According to Guidestar, Ecclesia, Inc. “is not required to file an annual return with the IRS because it is a church.” Unlike other non-profit entities, Ecclesia isn’t accountable to the public via the annual 990 filing. Somehow the college and several other activities are considered a church by the IRS. On Ecclesia College’s website, a list of organizations are provided which are a part of the “church” or what they call the “Ecclesia Network.”
Twila Paris’ music business and all these other religious businesses are apparently a part of this “church.” According to Ecclesia College’s history page:
Ecclesia College is an important branch of the Ecclesia Network. Other ministries in the network include Strategic Missions, Ecclesia Relief and Development, Bibles For the Nations, Twila Paris Productions, Ecclesia Children’s Ministries, and Happy Few Unlimited.
When Micah Neal’s plea agreement says that development funds were directed to a “nonprofit corporation operating a college located in Springdale” the reference is apparently to Ecclesia, Inc. which is a church.
If Ecclesia is a church, then who is the pastor?
In essence, Arkansas tax payers have spent well over $500,000 since 2013 building a “church” in Springdale, Arkansas via the General Improvement Fund. This church isn’t functioning as a church but appears to be shielding several money making ventures from public accountability and possibly taxation.
Last March, the Freedom from Religion Foundation complained to the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District about the allocation of funds to Ecclesia. According to the FFRF report, a NWAEDD representative pledged not to use any additional funds for religious purposes.
While I doubt it will happen, I believe the Arkansas legislature should investigate the funneling of funds to Ecclesia and other religious organizations. Specifically, Ecclesia’s role, if any, in the bribery scandal should be investigated. More generally, Ecclesia’s status as a church appears to be questionable as has been the practice of allocating public funds for sectarian religious purposes.
Last week, Arkansas state representative Micah Neal pleaded guilty to fraud and accepting bribes from two non-profits in his district in exchange for state government discretionary funds. One of the non-profits has been identified as Ecclesia College, a Bible college in Springdale, Arkansas. In the plea agreement with Rep. Neal, the president of Ecclesia College — Oren Paris III – is referred to as one of those who authorized payments to Rep. Neal. After this news emerged, Paris issued a statement via Facebook denying any wrongdoing.
After Paris posted his denial, I left a comment asking about specific elements of the plea agreement. The agreement claimed Paris (“Person B”) authorized payment of $18,000 to Neal through a consultant (“Person C”). On the Facebook page comment section, I asked about the identity of Person C is and why Ecclesia College paid Person C $65,000 as stated in the plea agreement. According to the agreement, $18,000 was authorized to go to Rep. Neal. Two other commenters also called on Paris to provide more information.
As of yesterday, Ecclesia College has removed those comments from their Facebook denial and banned my account from commenting. I heard from one other commenter who is also banned. Instead of addressing what are fair questions based on the plea agreement, Ecclesia removed the comments.
It seems likely that additional charges will come in this case and that the questions for Ecclesia will not go away. If there is truly no wrongdoing Ecclesia should be transparent about this deal which involves tax payer funding and a breach of public trust.