Fayetteville, AR–A former Arkansas state senator was sentenced Wednesday to 220 months in prison for organizing and leading a bribery scheme in which state funds were directed to non-profit entities in exchange for kickbacks, many of which were funneled through a consultant’s business.
On May 3, a jury found Jonathan E. Woods, 41, of Springdale, Arkansas, guilty of 15 counts, including conspiracy, honest services wire and mail fraud, and money laundering. In addition to his prison sentence, U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks of the Western District of Arkansas sentenced Woods to serve three years of supervised release and ordered Woods to pay restitution in the amount of $1,621,500 to the State of Arkansas and two economic development districts including the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District and forfeit $1,097,005.
“Jonathan Woods abused his position as an Arkansas State Senator and betrayed the public trust by taking bribes and kickbacks,” said Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski, of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “This conviction demonstrates the commitment of the Department of Justice and our federal partners to investigate and prosecute public officials who misuse their authority to benefit themselves at the expense of the citizens they pledged to serve.”
“Today’s sentence is the result of very hard work by the assigned Assistant U.S. Attorneys and the special agents from the IRS and the FBI,” said U.S. Attorney Duane “DAK” Kees for the Western District of Arkansas. “We both respect and appreciate the judgment of the Court and the sentence that Judge Brooks ordered today. This sentence should send a message to the people who would abuse the trust of Arkansas voters and citizens. It should serve as a serious warning to those who would intentionally steal money from taxpayers and use their elected office to both commit and conceal their crimes. As I stated after the jury trial concluded, my office, along with the Criminal Division from the Department of Justice, will continue to investigate, pursue and prosecute public corruption cases in Arkansas in order to ensure the fairness and justice that the people of Arkansas deserve.”
According to the evidence presented at trial, Woods served as an Arkansas State Senator from 2013 to 2017. Between approximately 2013 and approximately 2015, Woods used his official position as a senator to appropriate and direct government money, known as General Improvement Funds (GIF), to two non-profit entities by, among other things, directly authorizing GIF disbursements and advising other Arkansas legislators – including former State Representative Micah Neal, 43, of Springdale, Arkansas – to contribute GIF to the non-profits. Specifically, Woods and Neal authorized and directed the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District, which was responsible for disbursing the GIF, to award a total of approximately $600,000 in GIF money to the two non-profit entities. The evidence further showed that Woods and Neal received bribes from officials at both non-profits, including Oren Paris III, 50, of Springdale, Arkansas, who was the president of a college. Woods initially facilitated $200,000 of GIF money to the college and later, together with Neal, directed another $200,000 to the college, all in exchange for kickbacks. To pay and conceal the kickbacks to Woods and Neal, Paris paid a portion of the GIF to a consulting company controlled by Randell G. Shelton Jr., 39, of Alma, Arkansas. Shelton then kept a portion of the money and paid the other portion to Woods and Neal. Paris also bribed Woods by hiring Woods’s friend to an administrative position at the college.
Shelton also was found guilty by a jury on May 3. He was convicted of 12 counts, including conspiracy and honest services wire and mail fraud, and is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 6. Paris pleaded guilty on April 5, before Judge Brooks to one count of honest services wire fraud, and he is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 12. Neal pleaded guilty on Jan. 4, 2017, before Judge Brooks to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, and he is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 13.