Benjamin Burris, an orthodontist who operated clinics across Arkansas, has been charged with 15 counts of bribing former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson to pass laws to benefit Burris' businesses, the U.S. attorney's office in western Arkansas announced Monday.
Burris paid Hutchinson $157,500 between February 2014 and November 2016 -- via checks of $20,000, $5,000 and $2,500, according to a 20-page federal indictment filed Friday.
Hutchinson, then a practicing lawyer, was paid monthly retainers that nominally were for legal services. But he was also expected to introduce and lobby for laws or regulatory changes that Burris wanted, the indictment says.
Formerly of Fayetteville and Fort Smith, Burris now resides in Windermere, Fla., and will be arraigned later, according to a spokesman for the orthodontist.
"Dr. Burris has long been a tireless advocate for improving patient well-being and increasing access to dental care. We are disappointed that the government has chosen to disregard clear and compelling evidence that undermines these charges, and we plan to mount a forceful defense," said a spokesman for Ropes & Gray LLP, a Boston law firm that contacted the newspaper on Burris' behalf.
Hutchinson pleaded guilty June 25 to one count of conspiring between 2014 and 2017 to commit federal program bribery in connection with Burris' orthodontist clinics.
At the time of Hutchinson's plea, Burris wasn't identified in court records by name, but as "Individual A."
Burris, 47, was a co-owner of several Arkansas orthodontic clinics, including Burris DDS, Gateway Ventures LLC, Oliver-Burris LLC, Smile Systems LLC, Snaggle Tooth Management LLC and Bethel Burris PLLC, according to the indictment.
The indictment charges Burris with 14 counts of honest-services fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit honest-services fraud.
In addition to paying $157,500 to Hutchinson's law firm, Burris provided free orthodontic services to members of Hutchinson's family and use of a private plane to travel to a college football game, prosecutors charge.
For his part, Hutchinson used his state senator's position to draft and file legislation to kill a dental-practices law Burris opposed. And the former state senator, who resigned his seat in August 2018, worked with a state agency for rule changes to help Burris' businesses, the indictment says.
"Hutchinson also advised and influenced members of the Arkansas Department of Human Services to expedite the approval of Medicaid applications for physical employees of Burris's clinics," the indictment says.
The federal charges detail Hutchinson and Burris meetings, some of which included other, unnamed legislators. As the meetings took place to consider Burris' legislative goals, Hutchinson accepted checks almost monthly from Burris' companies, the indictment says.
Burris' dealings with Hutchinson began, for purposes of the federal charges, after the orthodontist was accused in 2013 by state regulators of allowing his dental hygienists to provide services to patients who weren't getting orthodontic treatment.
Until 2017, a state law known as the Dental Practices Act required dentists who were specialists, including orthodontists, to limit their practices to their specialties and banned them from performing other general dentistry services.
The requirement was sometimes known as a "specialist restriction." A violation could result in 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 forbidden hygienic services.
But the orthodontist remained involved in the issue months later as he worked with Hutchinson and other legislators against the regulation. Here are some key dates and developments, according to the indictment:
• About Feb. 11, 2014, Burris sent a text message that said, "The chair of the Arkansas state legislature's budgetary commission just told us he will put a freeze on the [board of dental examiners'] budget -- TODAY!"
Asked who is the chairman, Burris replied: "Jeremy Hutchinson."
• That same day, Hutchinson, a member of the Senate Joint Budget Committee, placed a hold on the budget appropriation for the dental examiners board.
• Also on Feb. 11, Hutchinson, Burris and an employee hosted a dinner at a Little Rock restaurant, "attended by several Arkansas legislators invited by Hutchinson, and others, for the purpose of discussion of Burris' legislative objectives."
• About Feb. 20, Burris sent this text message to someone identified only as "Person B": "We own the dental board. Call me." In another text message that day, Burris said: The dental examiners board "has rolled over already and agreed with our guy that they need to rewrite the entire dental practice act. We own them. I'm kinda disappointed that they quit so soon. Pansies."
• Feb. 27, Burris sent Hutchinson and an employee an email titled "Legislative Objectives," which contained seven items. First was "Remove specialty restrictions because they are stupid and contrary to logic and the public good."
• At a dinner that day at a Little Rock restaurant, Burris, Hutchinson and a Burris employee -- identified only as Employee A -- "discussed Burris' legislative objectives and hiring Hutchinson."
"During this conversation, Hutchinson explained that 'there had to be legal work.' Burris agreed to put Hutchinson on retainer for legal services to make the payments to Hutchinson appear legitimate," the Burris indictment says.
• The next day, Feb. 28, Burris sent a $20,000 check from his Gateway Ventures company to Hutchinson's law firm.
Among Hutchinson's legislative efforts for Burris: Introducing in September 2015 an "An Act to Amend the Arkansas Dental Practice Act." It would have removed the specialist restriction and carried through other initiatives Burris favored.
In January 2017, the initiative was filed as House Bill 1250. It was signed into law in 2017 as Act 489 and killed the dental specialist restriction, according to the indictment.
Hutchinson, a nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson and son of former U.S. Sen. Tim Hutchinson, also pleaded guilty in June and July to two other public corruption-related crimes. He became the fifth Arkansas lawmaker since 2017 convicted in a two-state public corruption investigation. He awaits sentencing on those and the Burris bribery charges.
A Section on 08/20/2019
CORRECTION: Orthodontist Benjamin Burris has not indicated how he will plead to federal bribery charges filed against him in western Arkansas, according to a spokesman for a Boston law firm speaking on his behalf. An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported how Burris plans to plead.