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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Oren Paris III and Ecclesia College. NWA editorial: The money changers | NWADG

Oren Paris III with Heidi and Ted Cruz


NWA editorial: The money changers | NWADG:

"NWA editorial: The money changers
Converting public money to private use demands scrutiny
By NWA Democrat-Gazette
Posted: April 8, 2017 at 1 a.m.

Perhaps it's just human nature to want it all.

Or, since we live in a nation of relative abundance, maybe that attitude is just particularly well developed here in the land of plenty.

What’s the point?

If private organizations or businesses receive taxpayer money, their records related to the use of that money should be open to public inspection.

Ecclesia College, the private Christian school in Springdale, is today's example. Its history dates to 1975, and for much of that, the school has operated without making big headlines. It's educated its students with a focus on biblical education along with business, counseling and other degrees. Under the leadership of Oren Paris III, the college has grown its campus and its areas of study.

Of late, the news about Ecclesia hasn't been so bright. A corruption case involving local, elected state government representatives has shone a spotlight on the college, which involved the two state lawmakers. One former state representative has already pleaded guilty to accepting a kickback to direct taxpayer dollars toward Ecclesia. A former state senator is indicted in the same case, as is Paris.

But set all that aside for a moment. Ecclesia's involvement in the case centers around more than $700,000 in state money provided to the college, primarily if not wholly for land acquisition. Absent the alleged kickbacks, that money appears to have been achieved through otherwise legal means, a funding mechanism called the General Improvement Fund. That public money, as a result of a terrible public policy, was effectively handed over to the control of state representatives and senators who could allocate it as they saw fit.

Ecclesia pursued the money and got plenty of it. Now, under the shadow of the kickback allegations, the college has been asked to produce documents related to its use of the money the state's taxpayers effectively donated to the Bible college's purposes. Jim Parsons of Bella Vista filed a lawsuit after his requests for information about the money and its use were rejected by Paris. Parsons asserts the college's records related to the public money should be accessible by the public that provided the money.

Paris and the college are fighting the lawsuit, continuing their assertion that as a private institution, it is under no obligation to open itself to public scrutiny or accountability.

No ruling has been made in the lawsuit.

It makes no sense for public money to be funneled to a private college. Beyond that, it defies reasonable ethical expectations that even a private institution or organization should be able to accept public money without having to open its records with regard to how that money is used.

We don't suggest Ecclesia's entire operation become open to public inspection, but accepting $700,000 in public money ought to come with some strings attached. Transparency ought to be one of those strings.

State lawmakers who want to protect the public's interests should support measures to make clear that any money handed over to a private entity such as Ecclesia is subject to the same level of transparency as if that money was used within state government. After all, it's the public's money.

Ecclesia is wanting it all, free money from taxpayers without accountability.

We understand why the college might take that stance, but Arkansans should expect more from the people they send to represent them in Little Rock, and state lawmakers should be more interested in making sure the tax dollars Arkansans pay are put to appropriate uses.

If we can't trust them to do that, why would we ever trust them with any more of our tax dollars?

Commentary on 04/08/2017"



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