Orthodontist sentenced to prison in ex-senator bribery scheme

2019 10 17 18 00 4638 Gavel3 400

A well-known orthodontist was sentenced to roughly 12 months in prison for his role in a public corruption scheme involving a former state senator from Arkansas, according to a press release issued January 24 by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Arkansas.

Dr. Benjamin Burris, a former Arkansas dentist, was sentenced to one year and one day in prison, followed by one year of supervised release. The 50-year-old was also ordered to pay a fine of $157,500, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

In September 2021, the clinician pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit honest services fraud. Under the plea agreement, Burris admitted that he paid bribes to former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson in exchange for legislation that benefited his dental clinics.

From February 2014 through November 2016, Burris owned and operated several orthodontic clinics in Arkansas. In February 2014, Burris had dinner with Hutchinson, where the orthodontist discussed hiring the former lawmaker as his corporate legal counsel.

Burris admitted in his plea agreement that part of his intent in hiring Hutchinson was to gain his influence and get his legislative objectives met. Burris' legal entities paid Hutchinson Law Firm approximately $5,000 per month, for a total of $157,500, to cover assigned legal work, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

In an email in February 2014, Burris told Hutchinson that he wanted specialty restrictions on orthodontists to be removed. In January 2015, Hutchinson introduced a shell bill titled "An Act to Clarify the Laws Governing Dental Practice'' in the Arkansas Senate. In April 2015 and September 2015, Hutchinson filed related interim study proposals, which proposed removing special restrictions placed on orthodontists, the U.S. attorney's office noted.

In 2016, Burris texted Hutchinson, complaining about a lack of return on investment and requested specific updates on his legislative objectives, according to text messages cited in the plea agreement. In January 2017, one of Hutchinson's 2015 interim study proposals was filed as HB 2015. In March 2017, it was signed into law.

In 2018, Hutchinson resigned from the Arkansas Senate following his indictment on U.S. wire and tax fraud charges. In June 2019, he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit U.S. program bribery. He has not been sentenced.

Burris has not practiced in Arkansas since he sold his offices and moved to Florida in 2017. Initially, in 2019, Burris pleaded not guilty to all charges regarding his role in the alleged scheme. The additional honest services wire fraud charges that were filed against him in August 2019 were dismissed at his sentencing.

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