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The owner and chief executive of a Little Rock mental health care provider was arrested Thursday on charges of Medicaid fraud and tax evasion, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office announced.

New Beginnings Behavioral Health Service CEO Chirie Bazzelle, 46, of Benton, is accused of not reporting contracts with former Arkansas lobbyist Milton “Rusty” Cranford and others, Rutledge’s office said in a news release. She is also accused of attempting to evade taxes from January 2014 through February 2019.

Bazzelle surrendered Thursday, said Amanda Priest, Rutledge’s communications director.

Bazzelle's attorney, Sylvester Smith of Little Rock, said Bazzelle plans to plead innocent to the the charges. The accusations are a "selective misrepresentation of the facts," Smith said.

Cranford pleaded guilty last year to a federal program bribery. He was the director of Arkansas operations for Missouri-based Preferred Family Healthcare, the nonprofit at the heart of an ongoing public corruption investigation here and in Missouri.

Robin Raveendran, a former state employee who later worked for Preferred Family, also had a contract with New Beginnings that Bazzelle did not report, according to Rutledge’s office.

New Beginnings billed $25.5 million to Medicaid for outpatient mental health treatment from fiscal years 2011-18, state data show. Its billings increased each year beginning in fiscal 2013, from $1.6 million that year to $5.8 million in 2018.

Bazzelle acquired the for-profit company in 2010 during a statewide ban on new Medicaid-reimbursed outpatient mental health clinics. She expanded the firm in 2016 by opening a clinic in Rison, about 25 miles southwest of Pine Bluff.

New Beginnings serves hundreds of public school students in central Arkansas, the company’s lobbyist, Bart Calhoun, told lawmakers April 10 during testimony against the state’s recent shift to managed care for behavioral health.

At the same meeting Bazzelle said the firm serves students in the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County districts, among others.

Calhoun no longer represents Bazzelle, his office said Thursday.

Read Friday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.


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