LITTLE ROCK — An Arkansas state legislator pleaded guilty Wednesday to directing state funds to two nonprofit organizations in exchange for kickbacks, the U.S. Justice Department said.
State Rep. Micah Neal, R-Springdale, 42, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud. He will be sentenced at a later date.
As part of his plea, Neal admitted that between January 2013 and January 2015, while serving in the Arkansas House, he conspired with a state senator — a Justice Department news release did not identify the senator — to use their official positions to appropriate budget surplus funds, known as General Improvement Fund money, to two nonprofit organizations in exchange for bribes.
Legislators and the governor have traditionally distributed GIF funds to various entities and projects around the state.
Neal admitted that he and the unnamed senator directed the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District to award $600,000 in GIF money to the two nonprofits. Of that amount, Neal personally directed $175,000 to the nonprofits.
In exchange for his actions, Neal received about $38,000 in bribes from officials at the nonprofits, the Justice Department said.
The maximum prison sentence for conspiracy to commit honest services fraud is 20 years.
Neal’s attorney, Shane Wilkinson, said Wednesday, “Micah has done a lot really good things for his community and the state. He made a bad decision, but he’s owning up to it, and hopefully that doesn’t overshadow all the good he’s done.”
Wilkinson noted that Neal foreshortened the process by waiving his right to have the case submitted to a grand jury for a possible indictment.
“This is sort of the epitome of someone who’s willing to admit what they’ve done wrong,” Wilkinson said.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday when asked about the case, “It saddens me a great deal, both in terms of knowing the legislator but then also knowing the fact that he has pled guilty to conduct that is reprehensible for a legislator. So it makes me very sad. I certainly hope that all legislators and public servants are not judged by that.”
The governor also said the case “strengthens the concern that GIF funding, while it can be used well in circumstances, it can also be abused, and it’s a gray area there. For that reason, and the fact that we’ve got a lot of needs in our state, the current balanced budget I presented does not have any GIF funding.”
Neal, who owns Neal’s Cafe in Springdale, was first elected to the House in 2012. He did not seek re-election last year.