State to seek repayment from Ecclesia College. At last. | Arkansas Blog

Friday, September 14, 2018

State to seek repayment from Ecclesia College. At last.

Posted By on Fri, Sep 14, 2018 at 7:37 AM

Doug Thompson reported in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette today that the state Finance and Administration Department has asked Attorney General Leslie Rutledge to sue to recover at least $600,000 of the $700,000 in tax money sent to the private Ecclesia College in a scheme orchestrated by legislators who took kickbacks from the money. It's about time.

State officials seem to suggest that the issue wasn't ripe until conclusion of sentencing of former Sen. Jon Woods and former Rep. Micah Neal, who got kickbacks; their bagman Randell Shelton, and the former head of the Christian college, Oren Paris III.

I have my doubts. The participation of 10 Northwest Arkansas legislators in enriching a tiny, undistinguished college organized as a church has become a campaign issue. Rightly so. One of them, Rep. Bob Ballinger, made a profit off the land speculation state tax money enabled Ecclesia to engage in. His law partner, Travis Story, represents Ecclesia today and claims the statute of limitations has tolled on getting money back from the college.

This was a cause beloved by Bible-waving NWA Repubs and only one of many uncovered in a federal public corruption probe that has also ensnared the governor's nephew, former Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson.  The governor's nephew, Sen. Jim Hendren, has also said, yes, Woods suggested bribing him in 2012 to avoid an election contest, but he managed to stay silent on that until 2018, after Woods had been indicted. Hendren also declined to help the FBI snare Woods on that bribe offer. The governor threw a fund-raiser for Woods not long before the U.S. marshal came calling with an arrest warrant for Woods.

So now the governor's finance agency and Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (she of a security detail worthy of an emperor) are going to act like they care about a deal that has festered in the open for years.

I'll take you back to 2014, when an audit instigated by Republican Rep. Karen Hopper, laid bare the stench surrounding General Improvement Fund spending in Northwest Arkansas generally and at Ecclesia specifically. Hopper, a retired college administrator, had questions about sending state tax money to a private college, a religious one at that. The audit seems likely to have led to the federal investigation. It was no secret. It was trumpeted repeatedly in the pages of the Arkansas Times. As I wrote in a column for this week's Times about the general corruption of the Arkansas legislator, I've yet to see a legislator apologize for his or her role in shipping money to Ecclesia or other dubious projects (save remorseful federal convicts seeking lighter sentences) or make a peep about getting it back.

The action disclosed today looks like rear-covering to me. But better late than never.

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