- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 29, 2020

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) - A judge in Washington County has ruled that a lawsuit seeking to recoup more than half a million dollars in state grant money awarded to Ecclesia College can proceed with a new lead plaintiff.

According to the lawsuit, the school in Springdale received up to $550,000 from the state’s General Improvement Fund but that the money was tainted by kickbacks and wasn’t used for the stated purposes.

On Monday, Circuit Judge John Threet agreed to allow the original plaintiff, Jim Parsons of Bella Vista, drop out and be replaced by former state Sen. Bryan King of Green Forest, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.

Parsons originally filed the suit as a Freedom of Information Act request for documents, including financial records, from the college. It was then amended to seek reimbursement of the state grant money.

“The funds were not used for the acquisition of land for student housing, nor were they used to build student housing,” according to the lawsuit. “Instead, the funds were used to pay kickbacks to legislators, to purchase tracts of land, which defendant promptly encumbered to acquire additional funds for the personal benefit of its officers, agents and employees.”

The state Department of Finance and Administration asked Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office in 2018 to sue the college to reclaim at least $600,000 of $717,500 in state grants assigned from 2013 through early 2015, according to court records.

Threet said it is a class action suit; anyone who paid state taxes in Arkansas during that time is considered a plaintiff. He also granted a continuance so lawyers can reassess their positions. A new date for the case has not been set.

Acting U.S. Attorney Clay Fowlkes declined to comment on whether former Ecclesia President Oren Paris III has paid restitution. Paris was convicted in 2017 on a federal conspiracy charge related to the kickbacks.

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