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Federal Court Orders Appeal In Kickback Scheme Involving A Former NWA College President To Proceed

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — The former president of a private Christian college in northwestern Arkansas who pleaded guilty in a kickback scheme can proceed with an appeal of his conviction, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals decided Monday that former Ecclesia College President Oren Paris III’s appeal should move ahead even as evidence in his co-defendants’ appeals is disputed, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.

The right to appeal was a condition of Paris’ guilty plea.

Paris and consultant Randell Shelton were accused of funneling cash bribes in 2013-2014 to then-Sen. Jon Woods and former Rep. Micah Neal. In exchange, Woods directed over $715,000 in state grants to the college.

Neal pleaded guilty on Jan. 2017 to one count of conspiracy and cooperated with investigators extensively prior to the plea. Neal subsequently received one year of home confinement. Paris was scheduled to go to trial with Woods and Shelton but changed his plea to guilty the week before trial started. Woods and Shelton are appealing their May 3convictions.

The disputed evidence in the appeal involves the federal case against former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, who is accused of misspending campaign funds and tax evasion.

Lawyers for Woods and Shelton say Hutchinson implicated their clients to federal investigators in 2014 and that the case against them stems from information improperly taken from a laptop in the possession of Hutchinson’s girlfriend.

Attorneys for Paris filed a motion March 4 saying the issues raised in the Hutchinson case aren’t pertinent to their client’s appeal — which alleges investigator misconduct — and that Paris’ appeal should not be held back by the obstacles to Woods’ and Shelton’s cases.

The 8th Circuit granted the motion to proceed with Paris’ appeal in a one sentence court ruling. His attorneys were unavailable for comment on Monday, a spokesman for their office said.

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