More tangles in the church-state scandal at Ecclesia College | Arkansas Blog

More tangles in the church-state scandal at Ecclesia College

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ECCLESIA COLLEGE: More tangles in the GIF scandal.
  • ECCLESIA COLLEGE: More tangles in the GIF scandal.

The tangle
BOB  BALLINGER: His law firm is defending a college he helped get state tax money. Another attorney questions it.
  • BOB BALLINGER: His law firm is defending a college he helped get state tax money. Another attorney questions it.
d web of Ecclesia College, the Bible school favored by hundreds of thousands of dollars n taxpayer money, some now tied to federal bribery indictments, has grown still more tangled.

The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports today on developments in the lawsuit by gadfly Jim Parsons to gain access to records that would show how Ecclesia, a tiny college in Springdale, spent $700,000 in state money. Ecclesia had become a most favored recipient of state money through the surplus General Improvement Fund, with applications supported by a wide range of local legislators and even some as far afield as Sen. Linda Collins-Smith of Pocahontas. Why so much money for the tiny church school? In two cases, the answer might have been corruption. Former Rep. Micah Neal and former Sen. Jon Woods have been indicted by feds for taking kickbacks from money they guided to the college. Indictments that also named the college president, Oren Parris III, and a pal of Woods, Randell Shelton Jr. Neal has pleaded guilty.

Ecclesia is fighting the FOI lawsuit. Joey McCutchen, Parsons' attorney, has raised some new questions, according to the D-G:

* Travis Story, a Fayetteville lawyer defending the college, claims a protective order in the federal criminal case prohibits release of information. I think he's wrong. Documents in the case may be sealed, but not all documents held elsewhere otherwise deemed open under state law.

• McCutchen notes Ecclesia claims to be a church (this provides a substantial tax benefit). If so, the Arkansas Constitution clearly prohibits payment of state funds to it. That would make its application for state money fraudulent, McCutchen argues.

* Travis Story is a law partner of Rep. Bob Ballinger, one of several representatives who went to bat for state money for Ecclesia. The latest case filing says Ballinger may be called as a witness in the case and thus the Story firm should be disqualified from representing Ecclesia.

This is a smelly pile, crime or no crime. Why so much money to a tiny Bible college and not for state-supported institutions of higher education? Most of the push came from family values Republican legislators fond of talking about their careful management of state dollars.

JOURNALISM NOTE: I hope the Little Rock edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette picks up more of the Northwest edition's reporting on this story. It is NOT a local issue, but an important (and unflattering) accounting of how the state legislature operates. I am glad the NWA D-G finally plunged into Ecclesia, a beneficiary whose riches we've questioned for a long while. Indeed, others, too. Warren Throckmorton, the Pathos blogger, made the church connection months ago.


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