FAYETTEVILLE -- Benjamin Burris, an orthodontist who operated clinics across Arkansas, pleaded guilty in federal court Monday morning to one count of bribing former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson to pass laws to benefit Burris' businesses.
Burris paid Hutchinson $157,500 between February 2014 and November 2016, according to a 20-page, 15-count federal indictment.
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 Burris wanted, the indictment said.
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.
Burris pleaded guilty to count one of the indictment, conspiracy to commit honest-services fraud. Burris will be sentenced in about four months.
Burris entered into a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, which includes a speculative sentence of a year and a day in federal prison and a fine to be determined by U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks. The proposed sentence isn't binding on the court.
Burris faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 on the conspiracy to defraud charge.
"This conviction for a bribe payor is an important milestone for the people of the State of Arkansas in our lengthy public corruption investigation," said David Clay Fowlkes, acting U.S. attorney. "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."
Burris, formerly of Fayetteville and Fort Smith, lives in Windermere, Fla. He was allowed to remain free until sentencing on the existing bond and conditions, with travel restrictions. He must also report his conviction to any state licensing boards.
Burris, 49, 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.
Burris sold his businesses and moved to Florida in the spring of 2017 and hasn't practiced in Arkansas since, according to prosecutors.
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 $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. The former state senator, who resigned his seat in August 2018, also worked with a state agency for rule changes to help Burris' businesses, the indictment says.
The federal charges detailed 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 doing other general dentistry services.
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.
About Feb. 11, 2014, Burris sent a text message stating, "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," according to the indictment.
The indictment said 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," the indictment said.
About Feb. 20, Burris sent this text message to someone identified only as "Person B" in the indictment: "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."
Burris sent Hutchinson and an employee an email Feb. 27 titled "Legislative Objectives," which contained seven items, according to the indictment. First was "Remove specialty restrictions because they are stupid and contrary to logic and the public good."
The next day, Feb. 28, Burris sent a $20,000 check from his Gateway Ventures company to Hutchinson's law firm.
Hutchinson, a nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson and son of former U.S. Sen. Tim Hutchinson, also has pleaded guilty to two other public corruption-related crimes.