A Florida orthodontist who owned several dental clinics in Arkansas was indicted Monday (Aug. 19) for his involvement in a bribery and fraud scheme involving former Arkansas State Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, who pleaded guilty earlier this summer to similar charges as part of a wide-ranging federal corruption probe.
In a 20-page indictment in the Western District of Arkansas, Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and U.S. Attorney Dak Kees charged Benjamin Gray Burris, 47, of Windermere, Fla., with 14 counts of honest services wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud.
Burris’ arraignment will be scheduled later for his role in the alleged scheme that began in or about February 2014, court officials said. The Florida orthodontist and Hutchinson allegedly devised a scheme in which Burris hired and retained the Arkansas senator as an attorney and paid him a retainer in exchange for Hutchinson to take official legislative action to benefit Burris and his companies, the federal indictment states. Hutchinson’s and Burris’ scheme was first unveiled June 25 when the former Arkansas lawmaker offered his guilty plea to one count of conspiracy to commit federal program bribery in the Eastern District of Arkansas before U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker in 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 did not have to face a long list of other serious charges in a trial that was scheduled in Baker’s courtroom in July.
In the Missouri case, Hutchinson was subject to a sentence of up to five years in federal prison without parole and a fine of up to $250,000. Together with plea deals from consolidated indictments from the Eastern and Western Districts of Arkansas, Hutchinson faces up to 13 years in federal prison under federal sentencing guidelines and fines of up to $600,000, as well as paying restitution and additional court fees.
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 in late August 2018 after the federal indictment charged him with eight counts of wire fraud and four counts of filing false tax returns. Hutchinson’s sentencing has not yet been scheduled in the case investigated by the FBI and prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Western District of Arkansas and the DOJ’s Public Integrity Section.
In making the case against Hutchinson in June, federal prosecutors 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 verified 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. According to prosecutors, over the course of several years between 2013 and 2017, Hutchinson worked with Burris to overturn and file legislation preventing dental hygienists and specialists from engaging in certain dental and orthodontic practices. In September 2013, Burris appeared before the ASBDE after receiving complaints 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.
In one striking incident in 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 Hutchinson because of slow progress on the interim study and his legislative agenda, according to a transcript read by prosecutors before the plea deal in Little Rock.
“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 read in court. “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.”
In the 20-page indictment before U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Brooks, federal prosecutors said between February 2014 and November 2016, Burris paid Hutchinson, through Hutchinson’s law firm, approximately $157,500. He provided the former Arkansas senator with gifts including free orthodontic services for his family and the use of a private plane to travel to a college football game, the indictment stated. Hutchinson, in return, used his official position as a state senator to draft and file legislation to amend a law restricting dental practices that Burris wanted to change.
The indictment also states Hutchinson advised and influenced members of the Arkansas Department of Human Services to expedite the approval of Medicaid applications for physician employees of Burris’ clinics.
Talk Business & Politics could not reach Burris at his offices in Orlando, Fla. A summons was issued by the court to Burris who was affiliated with several dental practices under the Arkansas Dentistry & Braces moniker or similar names. His arraignment is set for 2 p.m. on Aug. 11 before Honorable Chief Magistrate Judge Erin Widemann at the federal courthouse in Fayetteville.