Sunday, September 9, 2018
SPRINGDALE -- Two longstanding family establishments might outlast the public corruption scandal that brought convictions of their current or former leaders.
Micah Neal, a former state representative and fourth generation in his family to help run Neal's Cafe, is set to be sentenced Thursday in U.S. District Court after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy last year for taking part in a bribery scheme involving hundreds of thousands of dollars in state grants.
Oren Paris III, former president of Ecclesia College and son of its founder, is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday for his guilty plea for fraud earlier this year in the same investigation.
Both institutions remain open for business, and some locals brushed off the scandal's shadow. Others said their recovery could take more time.
Neal's, painted bright pink and almost 75 years old, has long been a community artery, a gathering place to check the area's political and social pulse. That hasn't changed, said Rex Bailey, a former Republican Washington County justice of the peace from Springdale.
"All the politicians still go in," Bailey said, adding he'll always like the food, atmosphere and friendly wait staff. "What went on doesn't have anything to do with Neal's Cafe, and nothing that happened will keep me from going there."
A spokeswoman for 3rd District Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, joked by email Womack hasn't found a way to get the restaurant's apple salad to Washington, D.C., without it spoiling.
"But he would continue to visit Neal's Cafe frequently to get his regular order of chicken fried steak and apple salad and support this local family-owned business even if he had," spokeswoman Claire Burghoff wrote.
The topic seems difficult though. Requests for comment on the restaurant from several local officials and other residents weren't returned or were declined last week. Neal wouldn't comment for this story. In his testimony, Neal said he accepted an $18,000 kickback in two envelopes filled with $100 bills behind the cafe.
He pleaded guilty to taking $38,000 in kickbacks as rewards for steering $50,000 in state General Improvement Funds money to Ecclesia and $125,000 to a workforce training nonprofit.
He also cooperated in the investigations of Randell Shelton Jr. and former state Sen. Jon Woods, who were also convicted in the scheme. Woods and Shelton were connected to several hundred thousand dollars of the Improvement Fund given at Woods' direction. The pair's lawyers have said they'll appeal the convictions.
"It raises a bad taste in the mouth, that's for sure," said Tom Embach, a Mountain Home developer who stops by Neal's for a meal every time he comes into town. He still stops by, including last Thursday, and said the food was just as good but the restaurant seemed less busy than before.
"I'm sure it's a crushing thing that happened to the family," Embach added.
In court testimony from 2016, Neal said his father was nearing retirement and had said for a while Neal should choose between staying in politics or running the restaurant. He was a Washington County justice of the peace before joining the Legislature and began a run for Washington County judge before withdrawing in 2016.
"It's a 72-year-old business," Neal said, according to a court transcript. "It wasn't a hard choice."
Ecclesia as an organization hasn't been accused of wrongdoing, but Paris resigned as president before his guilty plea. The private religious school received roughly $700,000 in state grants in the past several years at the direction of several state legislators, the lion's share of it at the behest of Neal and Woods.
Investigators say Paris arranged for some of the grant money to flow back to Neal and Woods. Paris pleaded guilty, but the conditional plea allows him to appeal and perhaps void his conviction. His attorney, Travis Story, didn't respond to an email last week requesting comment.
U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks sentenced Shelton and Woods last week to prison time and more than $2 million combined in restitution, saying the amount was partly to pay back the grants touched by their scheme.
Denise Garner, a Democrat running against Rep. Charlie Collins in Fayetteville, said the school should give back the grants, at least those that came from legislators whose districts don't include the school, such as Collins.
"If this is truly a college that wants to be a reputable education system, they should do the right thing, I think," she said Friday.
Story, the college's attorney, has said its grant applications were accurate, and the grants were spent on land as intended. Collins pointed to Brooks' restitution orders as enough for now, unless new information comes out.
"The judge has said that the people that took the money have to pay back the money," he said.
Such discussions are a sharp turn for Ecclesia, which Oren Paris II helped found in 1975 to offer biblical and Christian ministry training. It earned accreditation from the Association for Biblical Higher Education in 2005 and since then began offering athletic programs and some secular degrees.
Before his death in 2012, the elder Paris worked in ministries and churches around the country and said his family had been passionate about gospel teachings since his grandfather's time.
"My kids always grew up thinking that they were part of this ministry," he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1999. He added: "Once we commit, we will never turn back; that's the end of it."
The college's board last spring said its members continue to believe the younger Paris is innocent, but sees the conditional plea as the best option. The school has nonetheless faced its own consequences from the case.
The U.S. Department of Education has barred it from receiving federal student aid payments in advance, for example. It must instead cover financial aid on its own and be reimbursed by the government after the fact.
Ecclesia officials have also said in court testimony the school has struggled with fundraising and other operations during the investigation. A Walton Family Foundation official this year testified he doubted the school's economic viability after a visit in 2013.
A local investment firm last month filed a foreclosure lawsuit against Ecclesia seeking $1.9 million to repay loans naming around 200 acres of Ecclesia-owned land as collateral. Unnamed friends of the college and a local bank refinanced those loans, resolving the lawsuit, according to the college.
Enrollment has held steady, reaching 215 online and traditional students this fall, Angie Snyder, the younger Paris's sister and Ecclesia's communications director, said in an email. That's about the same number as in 2013, when Paris predicted the school's enrollment would soon skyrocket and fill the west Springdale campus' facilities.
"We've been through a rough patch, but I believe that we're coming through it and we'll survive it, that we'll come out stronger than before," said Randall Bell, Ecclesia's new president. "The reality is Ecclesia is filled with wonderful people, very dedicated people, well-qualified people who are serving at a sacrifice."
Support and disappointment
Bell has worked for several national higher-education accreditation organizations and said he joined Ecclesia partly because he lived in Northwest Arkansas before and has two grown sons here. But he also thinks the school fills an important niche -- more religious than the University of Arkansas, more affordable than John Brown University.
Devyn Romine, a senior and student body president at Ecclesia, said the school's facilities aren't as big or fancy as a university's, but he was drawn to its work-learning approach, which provides jobs for students to defray their costs, and the chance to get involved in the community with blood and food drives and other events. He said his work experience gives him an edge in finding a career.
"I love this place," Romine said. He added of the kickback investigation: "When I look at that, that has nothing to do with the school. The school is thriving better than it has."
Pete McCollough, a junior from the Fort Smith area, said he wanted a small school with a Christian focus to study psychology and counseling. The Paris case lowered morale on campus in some ways, he said, with some students taking their jobs less seriously, for example. But he thinks the entire saga shows the institution is struggling and growing.
"I know it's a good school," McCollough said, pointing to instructors who know him and care about him. "It's such a unique and special experience."
Others in the area said they're waiting for the same confidence. State Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, said he knew the Parises and completed missionary training at Ecclesia's campus in the Youth With A Mission organization, which was also begun by the Paris family.
"I'm severely disappointed in the things that have happened in the last few years there," said Dotson, who directed a $13,500 GIF grant to the school. "Obviously the reputation of what could have been a very good thing has been severely damaged. Where it goes from here, I don't know."
Dolores Stamps, a Springdale insurance agent, said she was a member of an advisory council for the school around 2010, which worked to raise money, buy furniture for dorm rooms and encourage local students to apply.
She joined out of friendship to the elder Paris, whom she remembers as a generous, charismatic man and fellow member of Kiwanis International, and to support the school's work-learning model. Without it, debt can be like a tornado students can't escape, she said.
Stamps said she has driven up to Ecclesia a couple times to confront the younger Paris. She hasn't had the nerve to get out of the car.
"I hope the school can push on with new leadership," she said.
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