Wil­son fil­ing: Re­turn mil­lions in state money

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - LISA HAMMERSLY

For­mer state law­maker Mike Wil­son wants a cen­tral Arkansas eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment of­fice to re­fund more than $2.5 mil­lion in Gen­eral Im­prove­ment Fund money to the state trea­sury, ac­cord­ing to a mo­tion filed Mon­day in Pu­laski County Cir­cuit Court.

But Cen­tral Arkansas Plan­ning and De­vel­op­ment District Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Rod­ney Larsen says his of­fice has only about $969,000 in GIF money re­main­ing — and that is al­ready promised for grants to ci­ties, coun­ties and non­prof­its.

The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Oct. 5 in Wil­son’s fa­vor in Wil­son v. Walther, say­ing it’s un­con­sti­tu­tional for in­di­vid­ual Arkansas leg­is­la­tors to di­rect mil­lions in sur­plus Gen­eral Im­prove­ment Fund grants to pet projects through re­gional eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment of­fices.

Wil­son’s case tar­geted the Cen­tral Arkansas Plan­ning District in Lonoke, which serves Faulkner, Lonoke, Mon­roe, Prairie, Pu­laski and Saline coun­ties.

The state has eight re­gional plan­ning dis­tricts. Pub­lic records show they have awarded more than $50 mil­lion in GIF grants from in­di­vid­ual leg­is­la­tors since 2013, ac­cord­ing to an Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette sur­vey of pub­lic records.

With the rul­ing, the high court sent the case back to Pu­laski Cir­cuit Judge Chris Pi­azza. Still to be de­cided are what hap­pens to any re­main­ing GIF funds, plus at­tor­ney fees and other is­sues.

Mon­day’s fil­ing was the first in the le­gal bat­tle for any leftover money. De­fen­dants have 10 days to re­spond.

“There likely will be a hear­ing,” Wil­son’s at­tor­ney, John Ogles, said af­ter fil­ing the mo­tion Mon­day. No date has been set.

Wil­son, a res­i­dent of Jack­sonville, ar­gues that the plan­ning district should re­turn all $2.5 mil­lion in GIF funds it had on hand when he filed his law­suit in Fe­bru­ary 2016.

Pi­azza dis­missed Wil­son’s law­suit on Nov. 1, 2016, af­ter which the Cen­tral Arkansas Plan­ning District re­sumed is­su­ing grants un­til the state Supreme Court rul­ing this month.

“We still have a lot of lit­i­gat­ing to do,” said Sam Jones III, at­tor­ney for the district in Lonoke.

Jones said af­ter the district froze all GIF grants in re­sponse to the Arkansas Supreme Court rul­ing, $900,000-plus was left. But lo­cal gov­ern­ments and com­mu­nity groups were count­ing on that money.

“I want to in­form Judge Pi­azza about the na­ture of the ap­proved grants that were pend­ing at the time of the Supreme Court de­ci­sion, the mag­ni­tude of those, what they were for, and ask for his guid­ance on ex­actly what we tell those peo­ple and or­ga­ni­za­tions,” Jones said.

One of the most dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions, the plan­ning district’s di­rec­tor said, in­volves more than $50,000 in grants promised to help build a mon­u­ment on the Capi­tol grounds for Arkansas Gold Star fam­i­lies. The $500,000 project is un­der­way with help from the Her­shel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foun­da­tion in Louisville, Ky.

Jack­sonville res­i­dent Paul Gar­rett is a Ma­rine, a Viet­nam vet­eran and chair­man of the Arkansas com­mit­tee work­ing to build the mon­u­ment to honor fam­i­lies that lost mem­bers in com­bat or cer­tain other mil­i­tary ser­vice.

Gar­rett said his group spent thou­sands to start con­struc­tion and site prepa­ra­tion be­cause leg­is­la­tors promised al­most $100,000 in state grant money through the Cen­tral Arkansas Plan­ning and De­vel­op­ment District.

“Now we are left hold­ing the bag and try­ing to fig­ure out how we’re go­ing to pay for what we’ve al­ready signed for,” Gar­rett said.

The Cen­tral Arkansas Plan­ning District ac­tu­ally pre­pared a check for $39,000 for Gar­rett’s com­mit­tee the first week in Oc­to­ber, to be mailed Oct. 6, Larsen said. Then came the Arkansas Supreme Court de­ci­sion Oct. 5, and GIF grant fund­ing stopped.

Asked what his of­fice will do if Pi­azza orders a re­turn of the en­tire $2.5 mil­lion Wil­son has re­quested, Larsen said: “We don’t have it. I don’t know what hap­pens at that point.”

Ogles’ mo­tion also asks for $4,588.09 in plain­tiff’s costs and at­tor­ney’s fees of one-third of the court award to tax­pay­ers.

In ad­di­tion to Wil­son’s law­suit, state Gen­eral Im­prove­ment Fund grant money at­tracted at­ten­tion in Jan­uary when for­mer state Rep. Micah Neal, R-Spring­dale, pleaded guilty in fed­eral court to one fraud charge in­volv­ing ac­cept­ing $38,000 in kick­backs in ex­change for chan­nel­ing GIF grants to Ec­cle­sia Col­lege in Spring­dale and De­ci­sion Point Inc. ad­dic­tion treat­ment cen­ter in Ben­tonville and re­lated en­ti­ties.

For­mer Sen. Jon Woods, R-Spring­dale, Ec­cle­sia Col­lege Pres­i­dent Oren Paris III and con­sul­tant Ran­dell Shel­ton Jr. have pleaded in­no­cent to fraud and other charges re­gard­ing sim­i­lar grants. The three face a Dec. 4 trial.

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