Former State Representative Micah Neal was facing 7-9 years in prison for taking bribes/kickbacks to direct taxpayer money to favored entities at the beginning of his sentencing hearing on Thursday. At the end of his sentencing hearing, Neal left the courtroom with no prison time at all. Neal was sentenced to 3 years probation with one year of home confinement. Neal may leave his home for work and religious events. Neal was ordered to pay back $200,000 in restitution by the end of the 3-year time frame.
Arkansas Business got the following quote from Neal after the hearing:
“It was a pipe dream,” said Neal outside of court about avoiding prison time. “I never thought it would happen, but i was at peace with whatever happened.”
Judge Timothy Brooks, US Attorney Dak Kees, and Neal’s attorney Shane Wilkinson all pointed to how cooperating Neal was during the investigation and subsequent trial of former Senator Jon Woods, Randel Shelton, and former Ecclesia College President Oren Paris III. Neal actually approached the government about the bribery/kickback scheme when he first caught word of a possible investigation. For nearly three years Neal has worked with investigators and prosecutors on the kickback/bribery scheme with his co-defendants as well as other corruption cases in the state.
Prosecutors made a motion for a 10-level adjustment downward for Neal because of his good faith cooperation with prosecutors. Judge Brooks granted that motion resulting in the guideline sentence recommendation being lowered from 7-9 years in prison down to 3-4 years of prison time. Brooks commented he had never before granted anything higher than a 7-level adjustment downward but thought the 10-level adjustment was appropriate.
US Attorney Dak Kees described the sentencing of Neal as a “conundrum of justice” due to the severity of Neal’s crime coupled with his “unprecedented” cooperation with prosecutors. Kees stated they needed to “deter criminal conduct but encourage cooperation” with others who may consider helping prosecutors in future cases. Kees highlighted how Neal came to the government up front at the beginning of the investigation, unlike Oren Paris III who came at the “eleventh hour” and that Neal helped prosecutors tremendously for the trial.
Kees was asked by Judge Brooks what the government’s position was on Neal’s request for probation. Kees stressed that the government was not asking for a sentence of probation but they understood if the Judge so ruled and thought there was ample evidence to support that sentence. He stated he thought probation would still send a message, but also send a “message of encouragement for those who would cooperate.” Kees did state that it would make it harder on his office in working with others with information if the Judge issued a harsh sentence.
At a press conference after the sentencing Kees said he thought the sentence “sent a message for those defendants out there that if you have information it is in your best interest to come to law enforcement immediately” with that information. Kees also highlighted how Neal was public about providing information to the prosecutors, and not secretly like others have. Kees went further stating “If the Judge were to give a harsh sentence to Micah Neal it would send a message hey don’t come to the government, don’t cooperate with the government, take your chances. So with this sentence we think it sent a message to come to the government and cooperate.” Kees went on to say that “justice is tempered with mercy” in Neal’s case.
Neal’s attorney Shane Wilkinson agreed with Kees that this was a “conundrum” in finding an appropriate sentence for Neal. Wilkinson highlighted that Neal dove in “head first” and left nothing out while cooperating with with prosecutors. He argued that Neal’s cooperation was key in securing indictments and pleas to other cases around the state. Wilkinson claimed that Neal’s “truth shined a spotlight on corruption” in Arkansas and had a cleansing effect on the GIF system.
Unlike Woods, Neal gave a statement to the court, apologizing to his family, friends, and the general assembly. Neal expressed regret for putting a “black eye” on a great institution [the Arkansas legislature] and was sorry that he had made their jobs harder by lowering public trust. Neal mentioned how sorry he was to his children who had to read articles about how their father was a “hypocrite.” He also apologized to the employees at his family business, Neal’s Cafe in Springdale, and thanked their customers for their support.
Judge Brooks then pressed Neal about the culture of the Arkansas legislature. He pointed to text messages of Neal asking “how do you make money down here” and asked Neal if public office down there was widely used and abused making that corrupt atmosphere normal? Neal responded that “it happens more than people think” and thought it was “a little of both” when pressed on if there was a culture of corruption or was it just Neal seeking to make some money. Neal did say he heard others got payments for things for being a legislator.
Neal said he felt like damaged goods after all he has put him and his family through. He referenced a sermon from a radio pastor about how even when we feel like we are damaged goods and things might look bad on the outside, there can still be good left on the inside. Neal believes there is still good in him.
As with the other sentencing hearings over the past two weeks, Judge Brooks referenced letters of support for Neal and heard statements of support from his family and friends. Neal’s wife, father, and two long-time friends spoke on his behalf. Brooks also highlighted the significant number of letters from past and current legislators.
Judge Brooks said he “struggled” with the sentence and was disturbed by the casualness of Neal’s thoughts of getting paid off being just part of being a legislator in Little Rock. Brooks did commend Neal greatly for his cooperation and was sorry to see the other co-defendants try to paint Neal as a liar who had made everything up.
Asked after the trial if this sentence would make the people of Arkansas think this was just a slap on the wrist, US Attorney Dak Kees said he did not think that and thought that “justice was tempered with mercy” and Neal was not getting off “scott free” and told people to look at the entire case over the two years.