Micah Neal, a Republican state representative from Springdale, Arkansas, pled guilty last Wednesday in federal court to taking bribes in exchange for awarding state grants to two nonprofit organizations.
Ecclesia College, a small Christian institution in Springdale, said Thursday that it was one of them.
The Department of Justice said in a statement that Neal, 42, admitted, as part of his guilty plea, 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 to two unidentified nonprofit entities in exchange for bribes.
Neal and the senator specifically authorized and directed the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District, which was responsible for disbursing the GIF, to award a total of $600,000 to the two nonprofits.
Neal, who identifies as a Baptist, personally authorized and directed a total of $175,000 to the unnamed entities in return for approximately $38,000 in bribes from officials at the nonprofits.
An audit of the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District questioned many of the expenditures made by the agency, however, including more than $500,000 given to build a building at Ecclesia College.
In a statement released last Thursday, Oren Paris III, president of Ecclesia College, explained that while they were beneficiaries of a GIF, all transactions were above board.
"As a result of what was widely reported yesterday (Jan. 4), I am aware of statements made in a plea agreement entered into by Representative Micah Neal. Suggested by those news reports was that Ecclesia College was somehow involved in criminal activity with Mr. Neal.
"While it is certainly true that Ecclesia College, like NWACC and the University of Arkansas, has received General Improvement Funds as reported, I can assure you that neither I nor anyone associated with Ecclesia College has ever participated or engaged in any activity to provide money to Mr. Neal or any other legislator in exchange for the receipt of those funds," Paris wrote.
"The search for funding sources is an important part of the life of any nonprofit organization. As a Christian work-college, we are not eligible for the same level of government funding as public colleges and institutions, and have from time to time engaged consultants in those efforts. While Ecclesia College did receive GIF funds from the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development Corporation, every dollar of those funds have been used for the purposes for which they were requested.
"Every effort was made to comply with every aspect of the law as we understood it," he added. "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."
Subsequent statements from the Ecclesia College indicate that following local news reports on the bribery scandal involving Neal, a number of supporters have reached out to voice their support for the institution.
"Thanks so much to all of you who have reached out to us to express your love, confidence, and encouragement over the past couple of days. It means so much to know that you're standing with us in prayer. This school belongs to the Lord, and we belong to the Lord. Our trust is in Him. We are honored and grateful to work alongside you for His glory," the college said on Facebook.