Developments in a lawsuit involving Ecclesia College, the Springdale church that received at least $600,000 in questionable taxpayer support and then shipped some back to legislators in a felonious kickback scheme, indicate Attorney General Leslie Rutledge isn’t as serious about getting the money back as she once claimed.
Sept. 7, Gov. Asa Hutchison’s Department of Finance and Administration asked the attorney general’s office about getting the money back.
Rutledge’s office said. “Attorney General Rutledge is reviewing all of the information available and plans to take appropriate action to recover any money owed to Arkansas taxpayers.”
Developments in an illegal exaction lawsuit against the college indicate “appropriate action” may not be forthcoming. That lawsuit is attempting to take depositions from legislators who helped Eccelsia get money, including Republican Reps. Charlie Collins and Jim Dotson.
Rutledge’s office filed a motion recently to quash legislative subpoenas in Jim Parsons’ lawsuit which also raises Freedom of Information Act questions about how Ecclesia spent the money. Her motion says legislators can’t be compelled to testify on account of legislative privilege. But the brief in support also argues that Parson has no cause of action because the money has already been spent by Ecclesia. It says:
Parsons acknowledges in his amended complaints, and it is widely-reported public knowledge, that Ecclesia has already spent the GIF grant funds that are at issue in Count II.
In addition, former Ecclesia president Oren Paris III has already been ordered to pay $621,500 in restitution, the amount of public GIF money that flowed to Ecclesia in the kickback scheme. Id. As a result, and as a matter of law, Parsons has no valid cause of action for a “refund” of those same funds to the taxpayers under the illegal-exaction clause. See, e.g., White v. Ark. Capital Corp./Diamond State Ventures, 365 Ark. 200, 226 S.W.3d 825 (2006) (affirming dismissal of a taxpayer illegal-exaction complaint as moot when public grant funds had already been spent by the recipients); see also Wilson v. Walther, 2017 Ark. 270, 527 S.W.3d 709 (distinguishing White and holding that an illegal-exaction claim is not moot if the entity receiving the GIF funds kept an accounting of the funds and still has GIF funds in its account that could be refunded to the Treasury). Parsons is, therefore, not entitled to conduct any discovery regarding his illegal-exaction claim, from third parties or otherwise.
In short, if somebody receives state money illegally and spends it quickly, too bad for taxpayers. It’s gone.
In any case, the filing raises a question about Rutledge’s announcement to take “appropriate action” to recover money. I’m seeking a comment from the office.
UPDATE: A spokesman for Rutledge issued this statement:
The motion to quash does not mean the State is precluded from recovering the money through other means. The Attorney General remains committed to recovering the money through appropriate actions.
Joey McCutcheon and Matt Bishop, attorneys for Parsons, are expected to contest the state’s filing.
UPDATE: Mike Lee, Rutledge’s Democratic opponent for re-election, issued a statement:
After reviewing Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s motion to quash the lawsuit of former legislator Jim Parson, it is once again evident that her words do not match her actions. Previously, her office claimed she was pursuing all legal actions to reclaim more than $600,000 in tax dollars that were illegally given to Ecclesia College via a kickback scheme involving several legislators. Now it appears she is defending those legislators in question, many of whom have been found guilty and sentenced to prison.
“This is further proof that Rutledge has no intention of going after corrupt politicians or collecting our stolen tax dollars,” Mike Lee said. “Once again, her words ring hollow when her actions are revealed. Arkansas needs a new attorney general who will be a watchdog. I have a plan to toughen our ethics laws, and I will conduct real investigations to ensure corruption has no hiding place in our state Capitol.”