United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
TIMOTHY L. BROOKS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
before the Court are:
• Defendant Jonathan E. Woods's Motion for Judgment
of Acquittal under Fed. R. Crim. P. 29 or New Trial under
Fed. R. Crim. P. 33 (Doc. 395) and Brief in Support (Doc.
396), and the Government's Response in Opposition (Doc.
• Defendant Randell G. Shelton, Jr.'s Motion for
Judgment of Acquittal, or in the Alternative, a New Trial
(Doc. 392) and Memorandum Brief in Support (Doc. 397), and
the Government's Response (Doc. 402).
reasons given below, both Motions are
Woods, Oren Paris, and Randell Shelton were charged in a
Second Superseding Indictment with, respectively, seventeen,
fifteen, and fifteen felony counts related to public
corruption schemes. See Doc. 74. Mr. Paris entered a
guilty plea to one of those counts on April 4, 2018.
See Doc. 321. Nearly a month later, on May 3, a jury
convicted Mr. Woods and Mr. Shelton at trial on fifteen and
twelve of the felony counts against them, respectively.
See Doc. 378. Now, Messrs. Woods and Shelton ask
this Court to enter judgments of acquittal on all the counts
charged against them, notwithstanding the jury's verdict.
Alternatively, they ask this Court to grant them a new trial.
The Government opposes these Motions, which are now ripe for
Crim. P. 29(a) requires the Court, on a defendant's
motion, to "enter a judgment of acquittal of any offense
for which the evidence is insufficient to sustain a
conviction." However, "a district court has very
limited latitude to do so and must not assess witness
credibility or weigh evidence, and the evidence must be
viewed in a light most favorable to the government."
United States v. Hassan, 844 F.3d 723, 725 (8th Cir.
2016). When reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence to
support a conviction, the Court must resolve evidentiary
conflicts in the Government's favor, and accept all
reasonable inferences from the evidence that support the
verdict. See United States v. Weaver, 554 F.3d 718,
720 (8th Cir. 2009). "A verdict will only be Overturned
if no reasonable jury could have found the defendant guilty
beyond a reasonable doubt." Id.
Fed. R. Crim. P. 33(a) states that "[u]pon the
defendant's motion, the court may vacate any judgment and
grant a new trial if the interest of justice so
requires." Unlike with respect to Rule 29, "the
court has broad discretion in deciding motions for new trial,
and its decision is subject to reversal only for a clear and
manifest abuse of discretion." Hassan, 844 F.3d
at 725. "Also in contrast to Rule 29, in considering a
motion for new trial, the court need not view the evidence in
the light most favorable to the verdict and it is permitted
to weigh the evidence and evaluate the credibility of the
witnesses." Id. at 725-26. "Nonetheless,
motions for new trials based on the weight of the evidence
generally are disfavored, and the district court's
authority to grant a new trial should rarely be
exercised." Id. at 726. "The district
court will only set aside the verdict if the evidence weighs
heavily enough against the verdict that a miscarriage of
justice may have occurred." United States v.
Serrano-Lopez, 366 F.3d 628, 634 (8th Cir. 2004)
(quoting United States v. Rodriguez, 812 F.2d 414,
417 (8th Cir. 1987)) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Government's evidence at trial concerned two separate
schemes involving corruption of Mr. Woods while he was a
senator in the Arkansas General Assembly. In both of these
schemes, the Government put on proof that Mr. Woods took
official actions to direct money from the General Improvement
Fund ("GIF") to private entities-in exchange for
cash payments to him, and also in exchange for the hiring of
his friends or loved ones by the entities (or their
affiliates) who received the GIF money. One scheme involved
directing GIF funds to an entity called AmeriWorks. The other
scheme involved directing GIF funds to an Arkansas bible
college called Ecclesia College ("Ecclesia").
Participants in the AmeriWorks scheme included another member
of the Arkansas General Assembly named Micah Neal,
a lobbyist named Milton "Rusty" Cranford, who was
also the CEO of the Arkansas division of Alternative
Opportunities, an affiliate of AmeriWorks. Participants in
the Ecclesia scheme included Mr. Neal, Mr. Paris, who was the
president of Ecclesia, and Mr. Shelton, a businessman who was
hired as an independent contractor to provide consulting
services to Ecclesia. The Government did not put on any
evidence that Mr. Cranford was involved in the Ecclesia
scheme, or that Mr. Paris or Mr. Shelton were involved in the
AmeriWorks scheme. But the Government provided evidence that
Mr. Woods and Mr. Neal were involved in both schemes.
noted above, Mr. Woods and Mr. Shelton both challenge the
sufficiency and the weight of the evidence against them at
trial. The Court will address those matters below. But first,
the Court will take up a few additional arguments that Mr.
Woods raises concerning the instructions that this Court gave
to the jury, and the speed with which the jury delivered its
Woods contends that the Court incorrectly instructed the jury
on the meaning of the phrase "scheme to defraud."
The Court instructed the jury that:
The phrase "scheme to defraud" as used in [these]
instruction[s] means any plan or course of action intended to
deceive or cheat another out of the right to honest services
where a bribe or kickback is solicited, paid, or received in
exchange for official action or an official act. The
definition of "official action" or "official
act" is explained further in Instruction No. 13.
See Doc. 383, pp. 19, 25, 29. This definition of
"scheme to defraud" was lifted word-for-word from
the Eighth Circuit's Model Criminal Jury Instructions,
and the Court believes it is correct. See 8th Cir.
Crim. Jury Instr. § 6.18.1346 (2017).
Woods argues that this Court should have instead relied on
the case of United States v. McNeive, 536 F.2d 1245
(8th Cir. 1976) when instructing the jury on the meaning of
the phrase "scheme to defraud." The Court
disagrees, and believes that McNeive is both legally
and factually inapposite to the instant matter. For one
thing, unlike this case, McNeive did not involve a
prosecution under 18 U.S.C. § 1346, which was enacted
more than a decade after McNeive. For another, while
the underlying conduct in McNeive was a city
plumbing inspector's acceptance of unsolicited $5
"gratuities or tips" (totaling $490 over a
four-year period) for the nondiscretionary processing of
plumbing permit applications, see 536 F.2d at 1246,
1251-52, the underlying conduct in the instant matter
involves the solicitation and receipt of tens of thousands of
dollars in bribes by state legislators from private entities,
in exchange for the discretionary direction of hundreds of
thousands of taxpayer dollars to those entities. The two
factual scenarios are not remotely comparable.
Woods also contends that the Court incorrectly instructed the
jury on the meaning of the phrase "official act."
The Court instructed the jury that:
something to be an "official action" or
"official act" . . ., it must satisfy
two elements, which are:
One, the government must identify a question,
matter, cause, suit, proceeding, or controversy that may at
any time be pending or may by law be brought before a public
official, which would involve a formal exercise of
governmental power that is similar in nature to a lawsuit
before a court, a determination before an agency, or a
hearing before a committee; and
Two, the government must prove that
the public official either agreed to make a decision
or take an action, or actually did make a decision or take an
action on that question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding, or
In this case, the government alleges that Mr. Woods and Micah
Neal agreed to accept bribes or kickbacks in exchange for
approving and directing GIF monies from Economic Development
Districts to specific recipients, advising other legislators
and Economic Development District officials to direct and
approve GIF monies from Economic Development Districts to
specific recipients, and sponsoring and voting for
legislation directing GIF monies to Economic Development
Districts and state agencies for grants to specific
recipients. When considering the elements of a Count for
Honest Services Fraud, it will be your responsibility to
determine whether the government has proved beyond a
reasonable doubt the existence of a scheme to defraud that
involved a bribe or kickback in exchange for an official act.
It is not necessary that an act or action by a public
official ultimately be successful in attaining its desired
end, in order for it to qualify as an official act. Nor is it
necessary that an act or action by a public official be the
final or ultimate act or action on a pending matter, in order
for it to qualify as an official act. Rather, an intermediate
step towards some ultimately unaccomplished end may also
qualify as an official act, so long as that intermediate step
satisfies both of the elements listed in this instruction.
Merely hosting an event, meeting with other officials,
speaking with interested parties, or expressing support for a
pending matter, is not, standing alone, an official act.
However, evidence that a public official hosted an event, met
with other officials, spoke with interested parties, or
expressed support for a pending matter, may be considered as
evidence that the public official agreed to take an official
act, if such evidence is corroborated by other evidence that
in doing so the public official was attempting to pressure or
advise another public official on a matter pending before
that other public official. An official act by a public
official may include using his official position to exert
pressure on another official to perform an official act, or
to advise another official, knowing or intending that such
advice will form the basis for an official act by another
(Doc. 383, pp. 38-39) (emphasis in original).
crafting this particular instruction, the Court relied
heavily on Chief Justice Roberts's unanimous opinion in
the United States Supreme Court case of McDonnell v.
United States, frequently quoting it verbatim, and
otherwise always carefully and conservatively summarizing it
without attempting to extend that case's reasoning beyond
its plain text. See 136 S.Ct. 2355, 2368-72 (2016).
McDonnell is binding authority, and this Court
believes it accurately described McDonnell's
requirements to the jury.
Woods also asserts that "[d]espite sixteen (16) days of
trial testimony and over four (400) hundred [sic] documentary
exhibits totaling thousands of pages, the jury reached [its
verdict] in less than two (2) hours of deliberations after it
received additional instruction," that this
"additional instruction" was "constitutionally
ambiguous and violated his right to due process, a fair
trial, and impartial jury under the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh
Amendments to the United States Constitution,
" and that "it shocks the conscience as
to the speed with which the jury delivered its verdict after
it received additional instruction." See Doc.
396, pp. 2-3. The Court believes this argument is meritless.
"[B]rief jury deliberation alone is not a sufficient
basis for a new trial. 'At best, it is a factor to be
considered when deciding a motion for new trial, and even
then cannot be the only basis for granting a new
trial.'" United States v. Aguilera, 625
F.3d 482, 487 (8th Cir. 2010) (quoting United States v.
Cunningham, 108 F.3d 120, 124 (7th Cir. 1997)). And
here, that factor carries no weight at all in Mr. Woods's
favor, given the critical facts that he artfully omits: (1)
that the jury conducted two full days' worth of
deliberations (over a period of three calendar days); and (2)
that the jury requested and received "additional
instructions" from the Court throughout its
deliberations, from very early in the process, through its
middle, and all the way to the end. See Docs.
375-77. Every objective sign indicates that this jury took
its job extraordinarily seriously and performed its task with
great care and thoughtfulness, en route to
acquitting Mr. Woods of two of the seventeen counts
against him (and acquitting Mr. Shelton of three of the
fifteen counts against him). See Doc. 378. This jury
spent more days deliberating, and asked a larger number of
questions during its deliberations, than any other jury at
any other trial over which the undersigned has presided
during his four and a half years on the bench.
these preliminary issues out of the way, the Court will now
turn to the matter of whether the evidence at trial was
sufficient to support the jury's verdict. First, as
context for what follows, the Court will briefly summarize
the evidence concerning the control that individual
legislators, specifically including Mr. Woods and Mr. Neal,
exercised over the GIF process. Next, the Court will discuss
the evidence concerning the existence and execution of the
AmeriWorks scheme. Finally, the Court will take up the
evidence concerning the existence and execution of the
Sufficiency of the Evidence to Support the Verdict
Individual Legislators' Control over the GIF
trial, the Government introduced legislative records into
evidence, showing that Mr. Woods and Mr. Neal, along with
other legislators, sponsored and voted for legislation that
appropriated GIF to economic development districts, including
the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District
("NWAEDD"). See, e.g., Government Exhibits
122-26. Many witnesses with direct knowledge of the economic
development districts' GIF grant award process, including
former NWAEDD executive director Mike Norton, NWAEDD deputy
director Jeremy Ragland, West Central Arkansas Planning and
Development District ("WCAPDD") director Dwayne
Pratt, Mr. Neal, state senator Bart Hester, and Berryville
Mayor Tim McKinney (who was on the NWAEDD's board of
directors), all testified that those districts' GIF award
process was effectively controlled by individual legislators,
with each legislator in a district being apportioned a share
of that district's GIF to award to applicants as he
wished. This testimony was corroborated by extensive
documentary evidence, including spreadsheets maintained by
Mr. Norton that tracked Mr. Woods's and Mr. Neal's
shares of the NWAEDD's GIF, numerous emails in which Mr.
Woods instructed the NWAEDD to award his own GIF to various
applicants, and text messages and emails from Mr. Woods to
Mr. Hester and Mr. Norton regarding awards of other
legislators' GIF. See, e.g., Government Exhibits
116, 142-43, 149, 161, 175-81.