TAXPAYER WASTE: Eccelisa College in Springdale is a poster child for the abused General Improvement Fund spending. It got hundreds of thousands in questionable grants and legislators allegedly got kickbacks from the money.
Lisa Hammersly of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette today chronicled
several more of the ways legislators wasted public money on unaccountable local pork barrel projects through the now-defunct General Improvement Fund.
There were real estate purchases for do-good organizations that came to nothing. There was still more funneling of taxpayer money to religious organizations. Highlights included the shipping of $10,000 to Shiloh Christian School by the allegedly felonious former Sen. Jon Woods
so coaches and athletes could attend a "leadership" training conference in Nashville, Tenn., and $50,000 that Sen. Bart Hester
shipped to a ministry to do marriage retreats and other activities.
The D-G's Hammersly found a scarcity of receipts and other signs of accountability on much of what was described.
A couple of points:
1) This is the kind of scrutiny this program ALWAYS deserved. But with 135 legislators divvying up millions in surplus and then laundering it through regional planning and development districts, it was hugely time-consuming to follow and participants didn't make it easy. Recordkeeping was scant, for one thing.
2) The article said that the spending attracted "little public notice" until federal investigations led to charges this year against two former legislators, Micah Neal
who's pleaded guilty, and Woods, who awaits trial, for alleged kickback schemes.
Little notice? As Hammersly herself notes, the legislative audit unit has been pointing out problems in this spending for more than a decade. Mike Wilson,
a Jacksonville lawyer and
former legislator, filed his second successful lawsuit
over this unconstitutional local pork barrel spending in early 2016. Wilson's lawsuit followed reporting in the Arkansas Times
and elsewhere earlier about the smell arising from the outlay of GIF money, particularly in Jon Woods' neighborhood.
Times columnist Ernest Dumas wrote presciently in 2015
that it was past time, particularly, to investigate the tens of thousands spent by Jon Woods and many other NW Arkansas legislators on the Ecclesia Bible college i
n Springdale, which is organized as a church. Dumas wrote then of a largely ignored audit of $11.3 million in GIF spending in 2013-14
This is by no means all the attention given to dubious spending. I wrote as early as 2013 about Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson's
guidance of $5,000 to a Tea Party fireworks show
in Benton. Rep. Eddie Armstrong
got attention for directing directed money in 2015 to buy warmups for North Little Rock High School jocks
. More recently, I’ve detailed how
almost $60,000 was sent in lightly documented spending to a health services provider in a grant sought by Rusty Cranford, a lobbyist identified but not charged in the federal case against Micah Neal and Jon Woods. The recipient was part of the same multistate organization that received tens of millions in Medicaid and other money and which has been involved through associates — political consultant and
accountant — in two other felony cases in Missouri as well as the Northwest Arkansas scandal. No one has alleged criminal acts in shipping cash to these agencies to purchase turkey dinners for the needy, but it still seems a curious way to spend public tax money. The Arkansas constitution says state money is supposed to be reserved for general state purposes, not selective local beneficiaries.
So when Hammersly
writes the grants attracted "little public notice," I guess I have to ask what you mean by "public." Nonetheless, she contributed handsomely to the list of abuses under this program, which continued unabated amid my criticism, Mike Wilson's criticism and Legislative Audit's criticism.
The search for shame at the legislature is a fruitless task. Take the D-G quote from Bart Hester,
who ignored both the state Constitution and the U.S. Constitution establishment clause in shipping $50,000 to a religious ministry run by people he goes to church with:
"My only regret is I could not add an additional zero to that grant," Hester said. "Eagle Family Ministries are great people doing great work for the people of Arkansas."
So, too, do churches all over Arkansas, but they don't get to dip into the state treasury to pay for their effort.