Orthodontist pleads guilty in ex-Ark. lawmaker bribery scheme

By Melissa Busch, DrBicuspid.com associate editor

September 14, 2021 -- A well-known orthodontist pleaded guilty on September 13 in connection with a public corruption scheme involving a former state senator from Arkansas, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Arkansas.

Dr. Benjamin Burris pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit honest services fraud. The 49-year-old Florida clinician admitted in a plea agreement that he paid bribes to former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson in exchange for legislation that benefited his dental clinics. The additional honest services wire fraud charges lodged against him in August 2019 will be dismissed at his sentencing, according to the terms of his plea agreement. This is a reversal from September 2019 when Burris pleaded not guilty to all charges.

However, Burris, who has not practiced in Arkansas since he sold his practices and moved to Florida in 2017, can withdraw from his plea agreement if the court sentences him to a jail term that is "not a year and a day in federal prison." He is expected to be sentenced in approximately four months and faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

"This conviction for a bribe payer is an important milestone for the people of the State of Arkansas in our lengthy public corruption investigation," stated David Clay Fowlkes, acting U.S. Attorney for the state's Western district, in the release.

From February 2014 through November 2016, Burris owned and practiced at several orthodontic clinics in Arkansas. In February 2014, Burris and Hutchinson met for dinner to discuss the orthodontist hiring the former lawmaker as his corporate legal counsel. Burris also told him about his legislative objectives. Hutchinson responded that any arrangement between them needed to include "real legal work," according to the release.

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," the release stated.

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 2016, Hutchinson filed a related interim study proposal with the Senate Public Health, Welfare, and Labor Committee, and then filed another proposal (ISP-2015-154) on the subject in September 2015. The last interim study proposal suggested removing specialty restrictions from orthodontists, according to court records.

In 2016, Burris sent a text message to Hutchinson, complaining about the lack of return on investment related to their arrangement. Also, the orthodontist requested specific updates on legislative matters, according to text messages cited in Burris' plea agreement.

In January 2017, ISP-2015-154 was introduced as HB 1250. In March 2017, it was signed into law.

After the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Hutchinson on wire and tax fraud charges, he resigned from the Arkansas Senate in 2018.

In June 2019, Hutchinson pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit federal program bribery, according to the justice department. Hutchinson, who is the nephew of Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, has not been sentenced. His father, former U.S. Sen. Tim Hutchinson, paid $10,000 to the lobbying firm the Tolman Group to persuade President Donald Trump to pardon his son. He was unsuccessful, according to news reports.

This case is part of a multidistrict investigation in Arkansas and Missouri that resulted in the indictments of several lawmakers.

"While the bribery conduct of several members of the Arkansas Legislature is disgraceful, the only lasting disgrace would be in meeting these schemes with silence and toleration," Fowlkes said. "The exposure of the truth of this arrangement, from the bribe payer to the bribe recipient, brings honor to our people, our law enforcement, and our court institutions."


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