The underbelly of Arkansas politics revealed in unsealed text messages | Arkansas Blog

The underbelly of Arkansas politics revealed in unsealed text messages

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THE TALES THEY TOLD: Micah Neal, Oren Paris III, Jon Woods. - ARKANSAS BUSINESS ILLUSTRATION.
  • Arkansas Business illustration.
  • THE TALES THEY TOLD: Micah Neal, Oren Paris III, Jon Woods.
Federal Judge Timothy Brooks last week unsealed more than 500 pages of information filed in the trial that convicted former Sen. Jon Woods of taking kickbacks from government money sent to Ecclesia College. Despite many redactions, it is a mother lode for insight to the seamy underbelly of the Arkansas legislature. Vote trading, lobbyist gift-making, medical marijuana plotting and more.

This drawn from just one document, the motion by Oren Paris III, former president of Ecclesia College, gifted with hundreds of thousands in taxpayer money by many Arkansas legislators. He objected last year to information that had been withheld from the defense, particularly discussions between FBI agent Robert Cessario and Shane Wilkinson, defense lawyer for Micah Neal, the former representative who copped the first plea in the case that grew into multiple indictments and convictions. Neal had been taping co-conspirator Jon Woods, it turned out, though the government insisted it hadn't directed Neal to do this and didn't rely on those tapes for its case.

The motion by the Story law firm went nowhere in the trial, but it included dozens of pages of text messages between Cessario and Wilkinson and there the reading gets interesting. You can read it all at the link, but it includes:

* A statement that powerful lobbyists, Ted and Julie Mullenix, paid for Jon Woods'  rehearsal dinner at James at the Mill. I've sent them a question about this.

* References to vote trading that seemed to indicate votes for the Arkansas Works Medicaid expansion were won by trading for votes in favor of behavioral health spending advocated by Rusty Cranford, who's pleaded guilty to multiple kickback and illegal contribution schemes to build the Preferred Family Healthcare behavioral health colossus. It was fueled by millions in state Medicaid money.



* References to discussions held at a friend's home in a backroom with music turned up or going on drives to talk for fear of bugging.

* A reference to Woods having in storage a van provided to him for his 2012 campaign by Josh Duggar. According to the texts, he never paid for it, paid taxes on it or assessed it.

* Many references to Woods urging others not to cooperate with the FBI. The plan was to stand together and claim payments that went to Woods and Neal were loans.

Jon said [former Judge Mike] Maggio told on himself and that's why he's going to prison.

* Talk of interest in medical marijuana, both Travis Story's appointment to the commission and interest by others in dispensary licenses because of expected big profits.

Cessario: Micah informed me Travis Story [lawyer for Ecclesia and Oren Paris] got appointed to the marijuana Board

Wilkinson: Now that just made me laugh

Cessario: Me too, literally laughed out loud

Speaker Gillam put Travis Story on there

Wilkinson:  lt"s so ridiculous. Have they announced who will run the dispensaries yet?

Cessario: No ... probably after they make the rules I hear they are going ta extend the days they need to make the rules

* The messages reflect efforts by Woods and others, including Democratic Sen. Keith Ingram, to keep General Improvement Fund money flowing after Mike Wilson filed his ultimately successful lawsuit challenging legislative spending of the tax money on local projects.  A planning district on which Ingram was counting to distribute local money froze spending after the Wilson suit was filed against another district. Discussions were held about transferring the money to a "more flexible" district.

* A reference to former Attorney General Dustin McDaniel working against a bill by Jon Woods to protect use of Frank Broyles' name. The texts quote McDaniel as saying he had told a client, Facebook, that he was in a cooling-off period for lobbying when they first talked but they paid him anyway.

* Jon Woods, though in the investigation crosshairs, spent money on expensive jewelry for his wife and an expensive shotgun. "I don't see how he can afford that," said a text about the gun. But he repeatedly said he expected to be  acquitted at trial.

* There's an intriguing text touching on how the investigation might have started:

I talked to a friend of mine who visited with Jon about putting his name on the ballot. He told my friend that he'd been given a clean slate...He'd been investigated by everyone and there's nothing there. Told him that it all started with a guy in Jonesboro [probanbly former Sen. Paul Bookout, convicted of using campaign money for personal expenses] who spent a bunch of money and got caught and then they told that guy to give them every rumor about people down there that might be doing bad things.

He is a true narcissist. [I read this as reference to Woods.]

* Suspicion about a rat surfaced early. Wilkinson quotes Neal as saying Rep. Bob Ballinger, working with Ecclesia then and still, believed Neal was cooperating with the FBI. Neal said Woods had told him not to talk and also said "random legislators" were wearing wires.

* As subpoenas piled up and the examination of Ecclesia continued, Woods kept telling Neal he was standing firm. Neal said, by Cessario's account,

Jon again reiterated that I had done nothing wrong and that all they, FBI, want to do is shit on me, hurt my family and cause divorces.
* The texts talk of encouragement of Oren Paris to cooperate with the prosecution, as he ultimately did.

* Business of the legislature cropped up, in unflattering fashion. Cessario said:

Talked with someone who talked with a friend of Jon ... they said Jon is still denying all wrongdoing ... With the new rules the House passed this week, you will see future Speakers of the House go down in corruption charges ... they placed all committee placement totally in the hands of the Speaker ... they also are going to be allowed to raise money for future races during the session ... All members will be allowed to raise money during the session
* This passage was interesting. Might it refer to the bill Woods passed that set up Ecclesia along among Arkansas colleges to receive a form of higher education funding? Though the authorization was passed, with Gov. Asa Hutchinson's support, the money wasn't appropriated.

From Micah .. .
Tell Kenny that just because the law Jon passed didn't get funded, it wasnt a big deal. He was running for another term and eventually the powers that be wou!d need his vote and that would be his bargaining chip just !like the private option and the money he got for behavioral health.

Sentencing begins this week for Woods, Neal, Paris and Randell Shelton, Woods' friend and intermediary on kickbacks between Ecclesia and legislators. Woods is first, at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

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