Orthodontist convicted of bribing former senator Jeremy Hutchinson
FAYETTEVILLE — Benjamin Burris, an orthodontist who operated clinics in Arkansas, was sentenced Monday to a year and a day in federal prison for bribing former Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson to pass laws to benefit corporations. Burris.
Burris, 50, paid Hutchinson $157,500 between February 2014 and November 2016, according to a 20-page, 15-count federal indictment. U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks ordered Burris to pay that amount as a fine, without interest. Burris’ prison sentence will be followed by a year of probation.
Hutchinson, then a practicing attorney, received monthly fees that were nominally for legal services. But he also had to introduce and push for any laws or regulatory changes that Burris wanted, the indictment said.
Hutchinson pleaded guilty June 25 to one count of conspiring between 2014 and 2017 to bribe under a federal scheme in connection with Burris orthodontic clinics.
Burris pleaded guilty to counting one of the indictments, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud on September 13. Burris reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors.
Burris faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000.
Burris, formerly of Fayetteville and Fort Smith, now lives in Windermere, Florida. He was allowed to remain free until sentencing on existing bail and conditions, with travel restrictions. He was also required to report his conviction to all state licensing boards.
Burris was co-owner of several orthodontic clinics in Arkansas, including Burris DDS, Gateway Ventures LLC, Oliver-Burris LLC, Smile Systems LLC, Snaggle Tooth Management LLC and Bethel Burris PLLC, according to the indictment.
Burris sold his businesses and moved to Florida in the spring of 2017 and has not practiced in Arkansas since, prosecutors say.
The indictment charged Burris with 14 counts of honest services fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud.
In addition to paying Hutchinson’s law firm $157,500, Burris provided free orthodontic services to Hutchinson’s family members and the use of a private plane to travel to a college football game, accused the prosecutors.
For his part, Hutchinson used his position as a state senator to draft and introduce legislation to kill a dental practice law that Burris opposed. And the former state senator, who resigned his seat in August 2018, worked with a state agency to change the rules to help Burris’ businesses, according to the indictment.
“Hutchinson also advised and influenced members of the Arkansas Department of Human Services to expedite the approval of Medicaid applications for physical employees at Burris Clinics,” the indictment states.
The federal charges detailed the Hutchinson and Burris meetings, some of which included other unnamed lawmakers. While meetings were held to consider Burris’s legislative goals, Hutchinson accepted checks almost monthly from Burris’ companies, the indictment says.
Burris’ relationship with Hutchinson began, for the purposes of the federal charges, after the orthodontist was charged in 2013 by state regulators with allowing his dental hygienists to provide services to patients who were not receiving orthodontic treatment.
Until 2017, a state law known as the Dental Practices Act required specialist dentists, including orthodontists, to limit their practices to their specialties and prohibited them from providing other general dentistry services.
The requirement was sometimes known as the “specialist restriction”. A violation could result in the revocation of a practitioner’s license.
Burris entered into a consent order in November 2013 with the Arkansas State Board of Dental Examiners, agreeing to stop the prohibited hygiene services. But the orthodontist remained involved with the issue months later as he worked with Hutchinson and other lawmakers against the settlement.
Around February 11, 2014, Burris texted, “The Arkansas State Legislature Budget Committee Chairman just told us he’s going to freeze [board of dental examiners’] budget — TODAY!” Asked who the president is, Burris replied, “Jeremy Hutchinson,” according to the indictment.
The indictment says that on the same day, Hutchinson, a member of the Senate Joint Budget Committee, suspended the budget appropriations for the board of dental examiners.
Also that same day, Hutchinson, Burris and an employee hosted a dinner party at a restaurant in Little Rock, “attended by several Arkansas lawmakers invited by Hutchinson, and others, for the purpose of discussing the legislative objectives of Burris,” according to the indictment.
Around February 20, 2014, Burris sent this text message to a person identified only as “Person B” in the indictment: “We own the dental board. Call me.” In another text message that day, Burris said the board of dental examiners “had already changed their minds and agreed with our guy that they needed to rewrite the entire dental examiner act. dental practice. We own them. I’m a little bummed they quit so soon. Thoughts.”
Burris sent Hutchinson and an employee an email on Feb. 27, 2014, titled “Legislative Objectives,” which contained seven items, according to the indictment. The first was “Remove specialty restrictions because they are stupid and contrary to logic and the public good”.
Over dinner that day at a restaurant in Little Rock, Burris, Hutchinson and a Burris employee — identified only as Employee A — “discussed Burris’s legislative goals and Hutchinson’s hiring,” according to the indictment.
“During this conversation, Hutchinson explained ‘there had to be legal work.’ Burris’ accusation.
The next day, February 28, 2014, Burris sent a check for $20,000 from his company Gateway Ventures to Hutchinson’s law firm.
Among Hutchinson’s legislative efforts for Burris: Introducing in September 2015 “An Act to Amend the Arkansas Dental Practice Law.” This would have removed the specialist restriction and carried out other initiatives favored by Burris.
In January 2017, the initiative was filed as House Bill 1250. It was signed into law in 2017 as Bill 489 and killed the restriction of dental specialists, according to the indictment.
Hutchinson, nephew of Governor Asa Hutchinson and son of former US Senator Tim Hutchinson, also pleaded guilty to two other crimes related to public corruption.
The FBI and IRS investigated the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Aaron Jennen, Ben Wulff, Stephanie Mazzanti, Allison Bragg and Kenneth Elser prosecuted the case.