“In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught.” -Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
This isn’t the first time I’ve quoted Hunter S. Thompson in a post. A look back at the other examples, however, shows a theme: there is just something about outright lying and corruption in politics that makes the good doctor seem particularly relevant and quotable.
So it was that Dr. Gonzo popped into my head yet again as I read the recent stories about former State Rep. Micah Neal (R-Springdale) pleading guilty to taking kickbacks from non-profits in exchange for state funds. It’s not even the kickbacks themselves1 that prompted this post (though, admittedly, they are a problem); the Arkansas Times is doing yeoman’s work staying on top of the kickback angle. My interest stems from the lengths to which Neal and the Arkansas Republican Party lied about all of this juuuuust long enough to let them circumvent election laws and win a county judgeship that, had they simply been honest and followed the law, they would not have been able to win.
Let’s back up.
Micah Neal was first elected to the Arkansas House in 2012 and took his seat as part of the 89th General Assembly in 2013, during which he served on, inter alia, the City, County and Local Affairs Committee. He won the 2012 race against Democrat Yessie Hernandez2 by a 64-36 margin. In 2014, he was reelected, this time without opposition.
According to documents that have come to light recently:
As part of his guilty plea, Neal admitted that, between January 2013 and January 2015, while serving in the Arkansas House of Representatives, he conspired with an Arkansas state senator [Jon Woods –ed.] to use their official positions to appropriate government money known as General Improvement Funds (GIF) to a pair of non-profit entities in exchange for bribes.
To be perfectly clear about the shady human being we’re talking about here, that is January 2013, as in immediately upon taking office for his first term. That would be impressive — it usually takes a little time for even the most crooked politicians to get their feet under them and start breaking the law — if it was not so irritating.
On May 1, 2015, with over eighteen months to go in his term as state representative, Neal announced that he was not going to seek reelection to the House and would, instead, run for Washington County Judge in 2016 when that seat was available. His reasoning? “Being home with his kids more and the chance to bring his state experience back to the county level.” Neal filed for the Washington County Judge race in November 2015, and he officially had the Republican nomination for that seat following the primary on March 1, 2016.
While it is unclear exactly when the federal investigation began on Neal (and Woods) regarding the kickbacks, we do know that the Grand Jury for the Western District of Arkansas began its investigation some time in 2014 (based on the Grand Jury subpoena numbers (e.g., 2014R00221(X)) and issued subpoenas related to the kickback scheme beginning around that same time. Two subpoenas obtained by the Arkansas Times show Grand Jury hearings relevant to Neal in December 2015 and May 2016, the latter of which was commanded by subpoena on April 13, 2016.
Thus, it seems likely that Neal knew about the investigation, and how it might implicate him, by April 13, 2016, at the very latest.
On June 30, 2016, Neal suddenly announced that he was dropping out of the race for Washington County Judge”for family and business reasons.” He also (incorrectly) said that the Washington County GOP could hold a caucus to name a replacement for him on the ballot. When it was pointed out to Neal and the Washington County GOP that a replacement could only be named if Neal died, moved out of the district or county, or suffered an incapacitating illness, Neal suddenly changed his tune and claimed that he was dropping out of the race because he was “moving out of Washington County to run a family business.”
Of course, this subsequent explanation made no sense on its face: Neal’s entire House District, which he was required to live in during his tenure in the House, was within Washington County. Moreover, his “family business” is Neal’s Cafe, which he owns and which has been in Washington County since 19443.
Moreover, according to public records, Neal did not “move” to Benton County until October 2016, when he suddenly appears as living at 615 Prairie St., Lowell, AR., which is 10 minutes on the other side of Neal’s Cafe and just barely over the Benton County line.
Funny thing about that address, though. It is owned by the Doran Family Trust, and has been since at least 2004. It is a rental property, and the current tenant is apparently Micah Neal’s sister, Cynthia Rowland.
The strangeness of the Lowell address is further compounded by the fact that Neal is listed as co-owner on a number of properties in Benton County (Gentry, to be exact). See, e.g., here. If he just needed an address to pull off his fake move, why not use one of those? Most likely because it appears that these are also rental properties, and they currently have tenants, so it would have been much more difficult for Neal to claim that he lived in one of those.
Following Neal’s change of story and purported move — which, again, did not even happen on paper until October 2016 — the Washington County GOP caucused and selected Joseph Wood, one of Secretary of State Mark Martin’s lackeys, to take Neal’s spot on the ballot. Wood was selected over, among other Jon Woods, who apparently does not lack for hubris. The Washington County Democrats sued to prevent Wood from appearing on the ballot, pointing out that Neal only said he was moving AFTER it was noted that “family business” was not a valid basis on which he could be replaced on the ballot. Unfortunately for the public, the judge found that Neal’s purported move was a valid reason to replace him and that proper procedure had been followed, so Wood was placed on the ballot and, ultimately, won the seat.
The point of all of this being, the current Washington County Judge, Joseph Wood, is only in that seat because, rather than simply drop out of the race to save himself embarrassment (or even to “spend more time with his family”), admitted felon Micah Neal could not keep himself from telling yet another lie and standing by that lie, with an assist from the Washington County Republican Party.
He lied about why he was dropping out initially. He lied again when he changed his story. He then went so far as to pretend to move in with his sister, just across the county line, under the guise of a move that he in no way actually need to make, for “family business” or otherwise. He never even forwarded his mail to the Benton County address (continuing to use a Washington County PO Box).
He did all of this solely so his party of choice could circumvent the law regarding replacement of a nominee.
As if this all wasn’t bad enough, there’s one final middle finger in this from the Washington County GOP to the voters.
The nonprofit to which Neal directed funds and from which he (directly or indirectly) received illegal kickbacks was Ecclesia, Inc., d/b/a Ecclesia College. If one looks at Ecclesia College’s Board of Governance, one notices a familiar name:
That’s right…Joseph Wood. The same guy who improperly replaced Neal on the ballot also serves on the board of the entity from whence the kickbacks stemmed! Isn’t that a wonderful little kick in the teeth?4
To bring this whole thing full circle, the next line of the Hunter S. Thompson quote that began this post is, “In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.” Neal and the Washington County GOP are actively assuming that just enough voters will keep on committing that sin.
Note: An earlier version of this story said that Neal did not change his voter registration. That was incorrect and has been edited. The rest remains unchanged.
Briefly, Neal admitted that he accepted $38,000 in kickbacks from non-profits to which he had personally directed about $175,000 in state general-improvement funds.↩
An infinitely better candidate, by the way.↩
It appears Neal’s Cafe’s Facebook page has been deleted.↩
Not that you can find out much info about Ecclesia; because they are classified as a church for tax purposes and are a 501(c)(3), they don’t have to file tax returns or Form 990s.↩