As information has continued to come out regarding the transfer and subsequent illegal use of taxpayer money to Ecclesia College of Springdale over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been left with more questions than answers.
Those questions, in particular, are for our current District 97 state representative and candidate for the District 5 Senate seat, Bob Ballinger.
While there is no proof that Rep. Ballinger committed any illegal acts – and we are not implying that he did – there are several indisputable facts regarding Ecclesia and Rep. Ballinger’s role with the college and in the legislature that give us pause:
• In 2013, Rep. Ballinger was one of nine legislators to direct what totaled to be several hundreds of thousands of dollars in General Improvement Funds (GIF) to Ecclesia College, a financially unstable, private Christian college. Of those nine, Mr. Ballinger directed a total of $8,500 to the college, the lowest of any legislator who donated to the college that year. Former Sen. Jon Woods (R-Springdale) directed $350,000 to the college, and is in the midst of a weeks-long trial now over allegations that he received kickback funds from the college for his donation of the GIF monies. Former Rep. Micah Neal (R-Springdale) committed $50,000 to the college, and has pleaded guilty to fraud charges. The college’s president, Oren Paris III, has also pleaded guilty to fraud charges related to the kickback scheme. According to various reports, the college requested the funds to purchase a large plot of land to house students.
• While Rep. Ballinger is not suspected of receiving kickback funds for his direction of GIF funds to the college, he has performed work for the college in the years since he directed funds to it. The law firm for which Ballinger currently works represented Mr. Paris in his indictment, and Rep. Ballinger performed the closing title work on the purchase of the land Ecclesia bought. That land was sold to Ecclessia for around $675,000, despite being valued at around $200,000. Ballinger stated on a Facebook post last week that “almost all the work I did for the college was at a discount, because I was helping a ministry.”
• Last year, Rep. Ballinger supported SB 373, which would provide exemptions to certain private entities – such as Ecclesia College – from having to disclose financial dealings to the public, despite receiving taxpayer funds. At the April 19 debate, Rep. Ballinger falsely stated that the Arkansas Press Association did not oppose the legislation. Record Publisher Ellen Kreth, a sitting member on the press association’s board, pointed out to Rep. Ballinger and the audience that the press association was very vocal in its opposition to the legislation. Despite having the truth pointed out to him, Rep. Ballinger double-downed on his claim that the press association did not oppose the legislation again at a debate last Friday in Alma. Note: The Record has obtained video footage of Rep. Ballinger recognizing APA opposition to SB 373 during a committee hearing last year.
• Generally, the purpose of GIF funds – which Gov. Asa Hutchinson stated last month are now a thing of the past, presumably due largely to its lack of oversight or checks-and-balances – was to give legislators a means of helping programs and communities within their district. While portions of Springdale are in Rep. Ballinger’s district, Ecclesia College itself is not. It could certainly be argued that funds should go to programs that aren’t necessarily in a legislator’s district, but do help areas in that district. For example, Rep. Ballinger could direct funds to the Huntsville Fire Department, though the department itself falls just outside of his district. Ecclesia College, however, is a private religious school that benefits only those who can afford tuition and share a religious persuasion with the school. According to various online sources, Ecclessia College has an enrollment of less than 300 students.
• Despite Mr. Paris’ guilty plea, and Rep. Ballinger working for Mr. Paris’ legal representation, Rep. Ballinger has repeatedly defended Mr. Paris’ innocence. The week before Mr. Paris pleaded guilty, Rep. Ballinger was quoted in a Madison County Record article, stating in regards to Mr. Paris, “there’s a lot going on in this case ... someone should step back and say, ‘hold on, maybe in this case, Oren is innocent,’ and in this case he is.” On a Facebook post last week, Rep. Ballinger commented, “even the college president was a pawn in the scheme,” and stated in the Alma debate that he never stated Mr. Paris never did anything wrong.
• Walton Family Foundation Director of Special Projects Naccaman Williams testified in Woods’ trial last month that during a tour of Ecclesia in October 2013, he doubted the financial viability of the college, according to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette report. That visit, according to the report, came after the college received its first state grants.
None of those facts give weight to any accusation of criminal wrongdoing on Rep. Ballinger’s part, and to imply that they do is, as he has said online, a “dirty tactic.” However, they do show negligence and a lack of transparency. The criminal accusations are on the shoulders of Jon Woods, Micah Neal, Oren Paris III and Randell Shelton; the other legislators who provided funds to the college – Sen. Bart Hester, former Rep. Randy Alexander, Rep. Charlie Collins, Rep. Jim Dotson, Rep. Debra Hobbs and Rep. Stephen Meeks – must now bear the responsibility of directing thousands of dollars to a school that took the Walton Foundation one look at to determine it was financially unsafe.
Rep. Ballinger, specifically, now should work to promote transparency, especially when it comes to the college, rather than fight against it, as he did just one year ago. His insistence that Mr. Paris is innocent – and that the Arkansas Press Association did not oppose legislation he supported to change FOI laws, for that matter – shows a pattern of open falsehoods, denial or both.
He also has several questions to answer: Why does he continue to defend Oren Paris, who has pleaded guilty and has had text exchanges with Mr. Woods shown in court, showing he was completely complicit in the scheme? Why did he give to the college, when it is outside his district and it benefits so few people? When exactly did he begin providing work for Ecclesia, and how much did he profit? And lastly, does he see that as a conflict of interest, considering he directed funds to the school? Some of those questions have been posed to the sitting representative already – the last was asked at the April 19 debate as part of a multi-part question, but went ignored; other points were posted on Rep. Ballinger’s campaign’s Facebook page, but were promptly deleted. When another Facebook user posted those comments on his own page, Rep. Ballinger commented on it, accusing the poster of engaging in dirty politics.
They’re not easy questions, and it’s unfortunate for Rep. Ballinger that a high-profile trial surrounding the misuse of funds that several legislators, Rep. Ballinger included, helped to direct to the college is taking center stage in the middle of campaign season. But he has a responsibility to his constituents before his campaign. It’s not dirty to hold our lawmakers accountable for their actions. It’s any citizen’s duty. And now, it’s Rep. Ballinger’s duty – as both a state representative and a senate candidate – to clear those muddied waters.
A previous version of this article stated that Rep. Ballinger directed funds to the Huntsville Fire Department. Officials have disputed this. The Record is looking into the matter.