Facing mounting indictments in three separate jurisdictions, former Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson on Tuesday (June 25) pleaded guilty to charges of committing bribery and filing false tax returns as part of a wide-ranging federal corruption probe that has entrapped more than a dozen people.
Dressed in a dark blue suit with attorney Tim Dudley at his side, Hutchinson offered his guilty plea to U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker before a packed courtroom of nearly 50 people. Hutchinson and Dudley refused to comment after the hourlong plea hearing held at the Richard Sheppard Arnold U.S. Courthouse in downtown Little Rock.
In accepting the bribery and tax fraud charges laid out in two consolidated indictments from the Eastern and Western Districts of Arkansas in Little Rock and Fayetteville, respectively, Hutchinson will not have to face a long list of other serious charges in a trial that was scheduled in Baker’s courtroom next month.
Under the court’s sentencing guidelines, the former Republican senator from Little Rock faces up to eight years in federal prison and fines of up to $350,000, as well as paying restitution and additional court fees. After agreeing to the plea, Judge Baker asked the ex-lawmaker to appear back before the court in 90 days to be sentenced.
Hutchinson also has a plea hearing scheduled July 8 in U.S. District Court in Springfield, Mo., where he could get additional prison time on 32 counts of public corruption that involves embezzlement, bribes and illegal campaign contributions to elected officials in Arkansas and Missouri.
Hutchinson is the son of former U.S. Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., and the nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson. He had been a state senator since 2011 and first came to the State Capitol as a state representative in 2000. The former senator and Little Rock attorney resigned from the Arkansas General Assembly after the federal indictment charged him with eight counts of wire fraud and four counts of filing false tax returns.
Gov. Hutchinson said what has happened to his nephew will require more work to restore public trust in Arkansas politics.
“Jeremy has been engaged as a part-time legislator for many years, and I am deeply saddened with this breach of public trust. As a public official, I know the damage this does to public confidence and trust in our elected officials. We should all double our efforts to do the right thing in public office and to restore the public trust,” the governor said in a statement. “As my nephew, I hurt for him and his children. My prayers will continue for Jeremy, and I am hopeful this chapter of Arkansas political history will soon come to a close.”
Updated Info: Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Mazzanti outlined the case against the former Arkansas senator, Hutchinson answered “Yes, No, and Yes Ma’am” several times as Dudley and federal prosecutors from the Little Rock and Fort Smith districts and the U.S. Department of Justice looked on.
According to 26-page plea agreement, Hutchinson was charged with conspiracy to commit bribery in surprise charges brought against him on Monday in the Western District of Arkansas in Fayetteville. That indictment was filed and joined with the Eastern District case in Little Rock only hours after Judge Baker scheduled today’s plea hearing for Hutchinson to change his earlier “not guilty” plea.
In explaining the government’s case, Mazzanti said Hutchinson used his position as a lawmaker to pass legislation during the 2017 session that was favorable to “Individual A,” described in court filings as a specialist who lived in Northwest Arkansas and was “co-owner in several businesses that operated orthodontic clinics throughout the State of Arkansas, including: Entity A; Entity B; Entity C; and Entity D.”
Although Judge Baker asked that Individual A and other unknown people named in the plea deal be redacted, Talk Business & Politics independently identified Individual A as Dr. Ben Burris of Fayetteville, based on court documents, records from the Arkansas State Board of Dental Examiners (ASBDE), and other public information. Burris, who has not been charged with any crimes, could not be reached for comment.
According to Mazzanti, over the course of several years between 2013 and 2017, Hutchinson worked with Burris to overturn and file legislation that prevented dental hygienist and specialists from engaging in certain dental and orthodontic practices. In September 2013, Burris appeared before the ASBDE after receiving complaints that his practice had dental hygienists providing services to patients who were not orthodontic patients, in violation of the “specialist restriction” in the Arkansas Dental Practices Act.
On Feb. 11, 2014, Hutchinson, Burris and another unnamed person known as “Employee A” hosted a dinner at Little Rock restaurant attended by several state lawmakers to discuss Burris’ legislative agenda. About a week later, Burris sent a text message to another unnamed person stating, “The ASBDE has rolled over already agreed with our guy that they need to rewrite the entire (Arkansas) Dental Practice Act. We own them. I’m kinda disappointed they quit so soon. Pansies.”
On or about Feb. 27, 2014, Burris sent Hutchinson and an unnamed employee an email with the subject line “Legislative Objectives.” Federal prosecutors said the list of objectives include seven items, including the first one that said, “remove specialty restrictions because they are stupid and contrary to logic and the public good.” The sixth item stated, “allow experienced hygienists to perform reversible procedures and X-ray exams without a supervising dentist.”
Between 2014 and 2017, Hutchinson and Burris had numerous interactions to discuss the Fayetteville orthodontist’s legislative agenda, ranging from phone calls and dinners to email exchanges and text messages. In early 2015, Hutchinson filed Senate Bill 149 that proposed an interim study on state laws governing the Dental Practice Act. By early 2015 and late 2016, after paying out over $100,000 to Hutchinson in legal fees to hide the bribery scheme, the Northwest Arkansas orthodontist had grown impatient with the Arkansas state senator because of slow progress on the interim study and his legislative agenda, Mazzanti said during the court hearing.
“I pay you a lot of money a month for ‘full service’? Dude I don’t think this is working out. You never get back to us you never follow through and I’m tired of it. Get this neighbor stuff done THIS MONTH or I’m not paying you for November or ever again and I’ll let the Rose law firm handle it,” Burris’ said in one text message to Hutchinson read by Mazzanti. “I am tired of it Jeremy. You’re a nice guy but dammit I get tired of chasing you. My wife is (at) her wits end. It’s a full-time job to chase you. Get this done or we are done. Done as of October 31.”
At the beginning of the 2017 legislation session, the interim study was filed as House Bill 1250 and included the removal of the specialist restriction from the state Dental Practices Act sought by Burris. Legislative records show the bill sponsored by Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne, and Sen. Lance Eads, R-Springdale, was approved March 7 of that year by a 33-0 vote in the Senate with Hutchinson and former Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, not voting.
It was later approved two days later in House by a vote of 88-1 with Rep. David Meeks, R-Greenbriar, as the lone naysayer. The bill, signed into law by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, is now Act 489 of 2017. According to Mazzanti, former Sen. Hutchinson concealed his role in the bribery conspiracy by recusing himself from voting on the bill after filing a conflict of interest notice with Secretary of State’s office that said he represented an unnamed client affected by the legislation.
According to federal prosecutors, after Hutchinson received an initial payment of $20,000 from one of Burris’s businesses, he later received payments totaling $137,500 between May 2014 and November 2016. Close family members of the Arkansas senator also received free orthodontic treatments from Burris with a retail value of nearly $15,000, court documents show.
“Hutchinson understood that Individual A hired him as outside counsel for his companies because of his position as an elected official. Hutchinson was provided legal work to conceal the true nature of this arrangement,” Mazzanti read in court. “As part of this arrangement, Hutchinson pushed Individual A’s legislative objectives by filing SB 143, referring SB 143 for interim study, and filing ISP-2015-154, which later became Act 489 of 2017.
“While Hutchinson did perform legal work for Individual A, he would never have been retained if not for his position as an elected official,” Mazzanti concluded.
‘GLOBAL’ SETTLEMENT DEAL
In the tax fraud charge first filed in the U.S. Eastern District in Little Rock nine months ago, Hutchinson accepted the federal prosecutors’ findings that he knowingly filed and signed a false tax return from 2011 through 2014. Under the plea deal, however, most of the other charges in the 12-count indictment were thrown out in the federal indictment that included eight counts of wire fraud and four counts of filing false tax returns.
Besides facing a prison term, Judge Baker also told Hutchinson he would lose his right to vote, bear arms and run for public office again under the plea deal. As the former chairman of powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, Hutchinson was instrumental in negotiations passed during in the 2017 session that allows open carry of handguns in Arkansas.
By pleading guilty to the felony charges in Arkansas, federal prosecutors agreed to dismiss the remaining counts against Hutchinson in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri. In that 85-page federal grand jury indictment first unsealed on April 11, Hutchinson and a husband-and-wife executive team for Preferred Family Healthcare (PFH) of Springfield, Mo., were charged with 32 new counts of public corruption in a closely-tied scheme that involved embezzlement, bribes and illegal campaign contributions to elected officials in Arkansas and Missouri.
“This plea agreement is part of a “global” settlement of criminal investigations and prosecutions of the defendant in three districts: the Western District of Missouri, the Western District of Arkansas, and the Eastern District of Arkansas,” Mazzanti told Judge Baker.
She said Hutchinson will plead guilty to conspiracy to commit offense or defraud when he appears before a federal judge next month in Springfield, Mo.