In January of 2017, a major scandal broke open in Arkansas.
The story goes something like this. In 2013, a couple of state legislators gave $600,000 in taxpayer money to two non-profits in the state in exchange for bribes. One of those non-profits was Ecclesia College in the northwest part of the state. The small Bible school received a $200,000 gift from the politicians; in return, the politicians received kickbacks of several thousand dollars each. At least that’s what it looked like.
Dr. Oren Paris III (above), Ecclesia College’s president, took to Facebook when this all became public to deny any wrongdoing. He said this was all a huge shock to him. Sure, he wanted money from the state on behalf of the school — who wouldn’t? — but there was no quid pro quo.
After reading the statements contained in Mr. Neal’s plea agreement, I can unequivocally state that neither I nor Ecclesia College have been party to illegal activity. We have never been a party to any agreements to funnel money to any state legislator.
At the end of the day, I am secure in the knowledge that there has been no wrongdoing either on my part or the school’s part, and any rumors, innuendo, or any future news reports that say otherwise are simply untruthful.
The problem with that statement is that there were hints at the time suggesting Paris was very much involved in that scandal.
Yesterday, the other shoe dropped. Two of them, actually.
Paris resigned as president of Ecclesia College… and he entered a conditional guilty plea on charges of fraud.
Paris pleaded guilty to transferring $50,000 of $200,000 in grant money from [former State Sen. Jon] Woods and [former State Rep. Micah] Neal to [consultant Randell G.] Shelton. Shelton sent $40,000 of the money to Woods as a kickback, according to Paris’ plea.
Paris was allowed to enter a conditional plea, which is rare, said Travis Story, Paris’ attorney. Paris will be allowed to appeal the judge’s refusal to dismiss the case, and, if he prevails, the guilty plea and indictment will be voided, Story said. All three defendants asked for the case to be dismissed because of wrongdoing on the part of the lead FBI investigator who wiped the memory of a computer used to gather evidence. U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks denied the requests.
The school, once again, defended Paris in a Facebook post. Because when your entire Bible-based curriculum requires ignoring reality, a fraud charge isn’t really going to change anything…
While we continue to believe firmly that Dr. Paris has been honest and forthright in his statements from the beginning of this case, he and his legal team are now convinced that the best path forward is to accept a conditional plea agreement negotiated with the government. We stand with him in his decision.
The way the school’s Board of Governance makes it sound, Paris is totally innocent, but he had to enter a conditional guilty plea as a legal strategy to clear his name. But as my Patheos colleague Warren Throckmorton explains, the plea agreement itself suggests something far more serious:
If his statement to the government is true, then he “knowingly obtained [General Improvement Funds] money for the College under materially false and fraudulent pretenses” and “knowing and intentionally engaged in a scheme to defraud the citizens of Arkansas of the honest services of Arkansas state Senator Woods.”
If the conditional guilty plea turns into an actual guilty verdict, what will the college say then?
Given that their Board of Regents includes pseudo-historian David Barton and pseudo-mathematician Eric Metaxas, I suspect they’ll inevitably spin it into a story of Christian persecution. That is, if they don’t ignore it entirely.
(Screenshot via YouTube. Portions of this article were published earlier)