Ex-College President Pleads Guilty Before Arkansas Fraud Trial

FAYETTEVILLE (AP) — The former president of a Christian college in Springdale pleaded guilty to a fraud charge Wednesday, admitting he took part in what prosecutors called a kickback scheme involving his school.

Oren Paris III had faced a trial Monday with former state Sen. Jon Woods and consultant Randell Shelton. Instead, the president of Ecclesia College pleaded guilty in federal court. He will be sentenced during a later date.

Prosecutors say Paris paid kickbacks to Woods and then-Rep. Micah Neal in return for $550,000 in state grants in 2013-14, using Shelton’s consulting firm as a go-between. Neal pleaded guilty last year but has not been sentenced.

Woods, a Republican, faces 15 fraud counts while Paris and Shelton were named in 14 counts. The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported Paris pleaded guilty to a fraud charge Wednesday. All had been charged with conspiracy, and Woods also faces a money-laundering charge.

Paris plead guilty to transferring $50,000 of a $200,000 in grant money from Woods and Neal to Shelton. Shelton sent $40,000 of the money to Woods as a kickback, according to Paris’ plea.

In addition to pleading guilty, Paris quit as the college president and resigned from the board of the school his father founded. Woods and Shelton have each pleaded not guilty.

In statement Wednesday (April 5), the college said Paris had stepped down as president:

In the meantime, while Dr. Paris will be stepping down as president of Ecclesia College until his name is cleared in order to avoid further unnecessary distraction from the College’s mission, he will continue to serve Ecclesia.

The college added that it “operations will continue as normal.”

His lawyer, Travis Story, said Paris was allowed to retain the right to appeal the judge’s refusal to dismiss the case against him. If Paris wins on appeal, the indictment and guilty plea would be voided, Story said. Paris said Woods’ indictment alleged wrongdoing that didn’t involve Ecclesia and that he shouldn’t stand trial with him. The judge denied his request for a separate trial.

Paris remains free on bond but cannot travel beyond three northwestern Arkansas counties.

Shelton was present as Paris pleaded guilty, but his lawyer, Shelly Hogan Koehler, declined comment.

Ecclesia had received money from the state General Improvement Fund, which was controlled by legislators until the state Supreme Court declared last fall that the method of distributing money was unconstitutional.

Neal, a Republican, said he took two kickbacks totaling $38,000. The indictment doesn’t detail what Woods is accused of receiving, as prosecutors say part of it was paid in cash.