An Arkansas Republican lawmaker has pleaded guilty in federal court to charges that he personally profited from an elaborate bribery and kickback scheme involving a northwest Arkansas evangelical Christian college.
Hemant Mehta at The Friendly Atheist pointed to the rapidly mushrooming scandal which the Arkansas Times said could land state Rep. Michah Neal behind bars for up to 20 years and cost him a fine of up to $250,000.
According to a Justice Department news release, "As part of his guilty plea, Neal admitted that, between January 2013 and January 2015, while serving in the Arkansas House of Representatives, he conspired with an Arkansas state senator to use their official positions to appropriate government money known as General Improvement Funds (GIF) to a pair of non-profit entities in exchange for bribes."
The release continued, "Of the $600,000, Neal personally authorized and directed a total of $175,000 to the entities. In return for his official actions, Neal received approximately $38,000 in bribes from officials at those non-profit entities."
Ecclesia officials deny all knowledge of any financial improprieties. School president Dr. Oren Paris III published an open letter on Facebook professing his and the college's innocence of any wrongdoing.
"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," wrote Paris.
"The Plea Agreement, however, suggests that the President of one of the two non-profit groups — all signs point to Paris (a.k.a. “Person B”) — was actively involved in the scandal," said Mehta. "If that’s confirmed, it’d be a major blow to the school and its leader. This Facebook post could also easily come back to haunt him."
Neal abruptly dropped out of his re-election race last summer citing "family and business" concerns. The Arkansas Times said that Neal is not the only official implicated in his plea deal. The state senator he conspired with, a lobbyist, a consultant and a number of Christian nonprofit leaders are also named in the document.
Since Neal is a first-time offender, it's unlikely that he will receive that maximum fine and sentence for his crimes. In his most recent Twitter message, the disgraced Republican said, "Praise God even when you don't understand what He's doing."