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FAYETTEVILLE -- A former Northwest Arkansas orthodontist accused of paying bribes to former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson of Little Rock pleaded innocent Monday to all charges in U.S. District Court.

Benjamin Burris of Windermere, Fla., once managed orthodontics clinics across Arkansas. A federal grand jury indicted him Aug. 16 with one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud and 14 counts of aiding and abetting honest services wire fraud.

Burris lived in either Fort Smith or Fayetteville at the time of those crimes, according to the indictment. Honest services fraud is denying the public the honest services of an elected official.

Neither Burris nor his defense attorneys had any comment after Monday's arraignment in federal court in Fayetteville. Burris entered his plea in an 11 a.m. hearing. U.S. Magistrate Erin L. Wiedemann allowed Burris to remain free on $10,000 bond.

Prosecutors say Burris paid Hutchinson's law firm a total of $157,500 in legal fees between 2014 and 2017 in checks for $20,000, $5,000 and $2,500. Those fees were actually payments for Hutchinson to support laws and regulations that favored Burris' orthodontics practices, according to the indictment.

Hutchinson pleaded guilty June 25 to one count of conspiring to commit federal bribery in connection with Burris' orthodontist clinics, among other crimes involving other health care providers and misuse of campaign funds. Hutchinson, who is Gov. Asa Hutchinson's nephew, has pleaded guilty to federal crimes in three different jurisdictions: the U.S. Department of Justice's Eastern and Western Districts of Arkansas and the Western District of Missouri. His indictment and Burris' stem from the ongoing federal investigation of corruption in the state Legislature.

Federal officials so far have arrested six former state lawmakers, 10 former executives of health care providers in Arkansas and a Philadelphia-based lobbyist for one of the providers.

Burris, 47, was a co-owner of Burris DDS, Gateway Ventures LLC, Oliver-Burris LLC, Smile Systems LLC, Snaggle Tooth Management LLC and Bethel Burris PLLC, according to the indictment.

In addition to paying $157,500 to Jeremy 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 position as a state senator to draft and file legislation to kill a dental-practices law Burris opposed. And the then-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 used his influence on the Arkansas Department of Human Services to expedite the approval of Medicaid applications for employees of Burris' clinics, the indictment says.

Metro on 09/10/2019

Print Headline: Former Arkansas orthodontist pleads innocent to fraud charges

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