Ex-Senator Fights Kickback Scheme Conviction at 8th Circuit

ST. LOUIS (CN) – Attorneys for a former Arkansas state senator and his associate argued before the Eighth Circuit on Thursday that their convictions related to a kickback scheme should be dismissed.

Jonathan Woods was convicted of directing approximately $600,0000 in government grants to nonprofits whose officers paid them kickbacks. Woods, a Republican, joined the Arkansas Senate in 2013 after three terms in the House.

Randell Shelton, a Woods associate, was also convicted as the payments ran through his company.

In arguing for a dismissal, attorneys for Woods and Shelton attacked the credibility of FBI Special Agent Robert Cessario and former state Representative Micah Neal, who pleaded guilty to a conspiracy related to the scheme.

Patrick J. Benca, representing Woods, told the three-judge appellate panel that Cessario wiped a laptop that possibly had recordings useful for the defense before it could be analyzed. Benca also said that Cessario lied to his superiors and to the court.

“He actually got up on the stand and testified under oath, and that court found him to be testifying untruthfully,” Benca said in an interview. “That timed with the wiping of the laptop created what I believe the court’s conclusion is there was potentially useful information on that laptop and it shouldn’t have been destroyed.”

Justice Department trial attorney Sean Mulryne conceded that Cessario was found to have lied and is believed to be suspended without pay now by the FBI.

An attorney with Benca, Benca & Johnston in Little Rock, Benca also claimed that U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks erred by not recusing himself after what he called a pattern of prejudice against the defense. Benca elaborated on this in an interview.

“It was just a constant pressure that he put on us, and the negative remarks about how our motion practice was, and some of the adjectives he used in order to describe what it is what we were trying to do,” Benca told reporters. “And all along the way, all of these things were meritorious. These motions weren’t based on speculation or based on a whim or a fishing expedition. These are based upon law and facts, and we were getting rulings that were against us, but on top of that an indication that we were wasting his time.”

Shelly Hogan Koehler, representing Shelton, admitted her client gave Woods the money but said it was as a loan and not a bribe.

“There is numerous evidence that John was constantly borrowing from Peter to pay Paul,” Koehler said in an interview. “Randall just happened to be one of those Peters.”

Koehler told the appeals court that the only evidence stating that the money Shelton gave Woods was a bribe came from Neal’s testimony.

U.S. Circuit Judge Jane Kelly, an Obama appointee, asked Koehler why she believed there could be a recording between Neal and Shelton on the wiped laptop.

Koehler said Neal testified that he recorded everybody, so it stands to reason to he recorded Shelton as well. Both defense attorneys also cast doubt on Neal’s testimony due to Cessario’s actions during interrogation.

Koehler, of Snively, Fairrell & Koehler in Fayetteville, then pointed out a timeline consistency regarding the alleged wiping of the laptop. She said Cessario was told by the government on Nov. 30, 2017, that it wanted to examine the laptop to determine what recordings it had, as well as to whom they were made available and when.

Cessario, the next day at 6:22 a.m., logged onto a shared Dropbox folder from his home and logged on again that same day at 2:23 p.m. from the FBI office. Koehler said their forensic expert said any shared files in Dropbox that are deleted by one party are deleted for all other parties.

“Here we have Cessario — less than 12 hours after he’s been told, ‘Hey, we want to get a copy of your laptop and find out about all this stuff in Dropbox’ — and he’s logging onto Dropbox,” Koehler told reporters.

Mulryne declined to speak to reporters following the hearing, but did tell the three-judge panel that the District Court found that any evidence affected by the laptop was evidence the defense already had.

“The court found that there were no additional recordings on the laptop,” Mulryne told the panel.

Mulryne said the District Court could find no reason to believe Neal made additional recordings and passed them along to Cessario without his lawyers’ knowledge.

Ecclesia College received a total of $400,000 through Woods and Neal together.

Woods allegedly directed the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District funnel money to the agencies of those bribing him.

To cover their tracks, then-Ecclesia president Oren Paris III allegedly directed some of the grant money to Shelton’s consulting firm. Prosecutors say Shelton kept some of the money for himself and distributed the rest to Woods and Neal.

Another part of the kickbacks involved Paris getting Woods’ friend an administrative position at the college.

Paris pleaded guilty to his part in the scheme on April 4, 2018, and resigned as president of the college.

Ecclesia College is a four-year Christian work college in Springdale, Ark. Founded in 1975 by Oren Paris II, it had an undergraduate enrollment of 275 during the 2016-17 school year.

Judges Michael J. Melloy, an appointee of President George W. Bush, and Jonathan Kobes, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, joined Kelly on the panel. They took the case under advisement, and there is no timetable for a ruling.

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