Randell Shelton Jr. was sentenced to 6 years in prison for his role in a kickback scheme between him, Woods, and Ecclesia College. Shelton was the “middle man”, passing along kickbacks from Ecclesia College’s taxpayer grants through a sham consulting company. Shelton was also ordered to pay $660,698 in restitution and $664,000 in criminal forfeiture. Shelton was convicted on multiple corruption-related counts of wire fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy charges on May 3.
There was a somber tone in the U.S. federal courtroom on Thursday as Shelton faced the possibly of over 10 years in prison based on guideline sentencing standards. Shelton pleaded for mercy from Judge Timothy Brooks for the “sake of his family” and specifically his newborn baby. Him and his attorney asked for home confinement as his punishment. In his tear-filled statement Shelton said he was “full of sorrow” for the pain his actions had caused and apologized to Ecclesia College, his family, and the people of Arkansas. He stated he would have never given Jon Woods a penny if he could do it over, but that he still supported Ecclesia College’s mission.
U.S. Attorney Dak Kees Closing Argument, Comments After Hearing
In his closing argument U.S. attorney Dak Kees argued that Shelton knew better and was raised right. He said that Shelton had considered the consequences of his actions, how they might affect his family, but ignored those consequences. Kees claimed Shelton was a “con-man” and “predator” and was the “middle man” in a scheme to “get a quick dollar” in his pocket. Kees pressed the importance of sending a message to other potential middle men who would help legislators violate the oaths of office that elected officials take. Kees stated Shelton had helped “bring shame on the political process” and that the Judge should send a message and asked for the guideline sentence (10+ years).
After the hearing, Conduit News asked U.S. Attorney Kees if it was safe to assume that others who directed money to Ecclesia or AHER but had not yet been charged with any wrongdoing would not be charged. He stated “that is a good question, but I cannot comment on that right now, but I can at some point.”
Arkansas Healthcare and Economic Research GIF Grants
During the first two hours of the sentencing hearing, the court heard testimony and evidence on Shelton’s role in directing taxpayer GIF grant money to the “Arkansas Health and Economic Research” (AHER) nonprofit organization. Shelton, with Woods, set up the entity with Charles Snyder of Benton who testified against Shelton on Thursday. Former Senator Jon Woods, former Representative Micah Neal, and State Senator Bart Hester sponsored GIF grants totaling nearly $40,000 to AHER. According to testimony this was the only money that AHER ever “raised” and much of the money ended up being used for personal uses for Shelton and to provide alternative therapies to Jon Wood’s ill father. Snyder testified he had to close the first AHER bank account because Shelton drained the account and overdraft.
Testimony from Alex Martinez, who Shelton met through Woods, showed that Shelton had paid Martinez with AHER funds to build a website but the website was truly for a separate for-profit company that Shelton owned. Jon Woods former assistant testified to how Jon Woods asked her to be a founding board member for AHER but she never did anything with the organization and that Woods was “the driver of AHER” from the beginning.
Ultimately Judge Brooks ruled that Sheltons actions were “relevant conduct” for calculating loss amounts for a sentence enhancement. Brooks admonished Shelton for his embezzlement of state money for the benefit of his other for-profit company. With this nearly $40,000 added in to the total loss, the court found the actual total loss was over $660,000 and received a 14-level enhancement for that amount.
Letters of Support, Mothers Statement
Randel Shelton’s mother made a statement to Judge Brooks in support of her son. She said that he was a “good man, husband, and father” and that she wanted him home and needed him there. She asked for “compassion” for her son. The Judge recognized how Shelton’s parents and wife, who live in Texas, had been at almost every day of the trial and how he could tell how much they loved and supported their son. Brooks said that was a mitigating factor in his decision to reduce the “guideline” sentence down to the ultimate judgement he issued.
Judge Brooks took time to read portions of dozens of letters written in support of Shelton. The authors included his younger brother, long-time pastor, accountant, parents, wife, someone from Ecclesia College, and a president of a nonprofit organization. The letters described Shelton as having a “servants heart” and was “always aware of his testimony for Christ.” He was labeled as “joyful, considerate, hard-working, and a genuinely good person.” Some letters also included pictures of Shelton with his newborn baby. Brooks pointed out how “more often than not most defendants in this court have no one to support them in the gallery” and that Shelton was blessed.
Randell Shelton Final Statement
Unlike Woods the day before, Randel Shelton did give a statement to the Judge, asking for mercy and to avoid any prison time. He spoke at length about his time at Ecclesia College and that he wanted “to help people who wanted to attend a Christ-centered college” and that he “felt at home” at Ecclesia. He spoke about how he wanted to follow in his grandfathers footsteps in helping Ecclesia and was driven by the “dedication to Christ” he saw from his parents growing up. He said he was “proud of what I did for Ecclesia” and came to call Ecclesia former President Oren Paris his friend. Paris entered a plea deal for his role in the bribery scheme involving taxpayer money and will face sentencing next week.
Shelton also mentioned his relationship with Woods. He said he would be forever grateful that he met his wife through Woods, but that he would have never given him a penny if he had to do it over. He said it “was my choice alone to give money to Jon” and apologized. Shelton spoke about his newborn child at length and stated that “if I am only half as good a dad my dad has been I’ve done okay.” He asked the judge for the sake of his family and his daughter for no prison time, but home confinement and to “not make my daughter or family suffer from my actions.”
Judge Brooks took a short recess before issuing his final decision.
Judge Brooks Sentence
Before announcing the sentence, Judge Brooks spoke at length about “mitigating and aggravating factors” that helped shape the sentence he made. Brooks said it was one of the more difficult sentences he has had to make. He emphasized that the type of fraud Shelton engaged in was a “special brand” of fraud because it involved stealing money from the taxpayers through elected officials. Brooks said Shelton “had an obvious consideration of guilt because of the steps taken to conceal” the crimes. Brooks spoke at length about the “mountain of evidence” and the “precision of timeline to recreate the crimes” that the prosecutors showed against Shelton and Woods.
Brooks challenged Shelton’s statement about his perceived role as a “fundraiser” for Ecclesia. Brooks said that any time he spent “googling names of donors” was not worth over $200,000. He said there was nothing legitimate about Shelton’s claim of being a fundraiser for Ecclesia and instead just used them as a mechanism to funnel money to Woods and keep some for himself. Brooks did say he did not believe that Shelton had the same type of “criminal mentality” that Woods had developed. He said he believed he was remorseful but was unsure if he had truly accepted what he had done.
Brooks spoke about how Shelton knew better and had a great upbringing and was privileged to receive one of the top educations in the south from SMU. Brooks said he could tell he truly did care about the noble mission of Ecclesia, but said that was undermined with him taking large sums of retainers and that did not advance the mission at all. Brooks claimed he thought Shelton’s words were carefully selected and could just mean he regretted being caught and could still argue these were just “loans” to Woods as he argued at trial.
Shelton will have until Monday, October 8 to self report to prison. He requested to be placed at the federal prison in Texas closest to his family. Former State Representative Micah Neal and former Ecclesia College President Oren Paris will be sentenced next week for their roles in the kickback scheme.