Benjamin Gray Burris, an orthodontist who once practiced in Fort Smith and Fayetteville, was named in an indictment released today for bribing then-Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson to help his business.
Action against Burris, 47, of Windermere, Fla., had been expected. Hutchinson pleaded guilty in June to conspiring to take a bribe from Burris to influence legislation. Burris, who now practices in Florida, hasn’t responded to questions.
Today, however, a spokesman issued this prepared statement in Burris’ behalf:
“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.”
Burris is accused of paying Hutchinson $157,000 — nominally as legal fees, but mostly to influence legislation and actions by others related to Burris, who’d run afoul of regulators for using dental hygienists to clean teeth of patients who weren’t orthodontist patients. Burris hired Hutchinson to influence a change in the law.
For example, after a consent order agreeing to stop providing the services in 2013, the indictment recounts a text Burris sent to an unnamed friend and insurance agent:
On Feb. 20, Burris sent a text to another dentist saying, “We own the dental board. Call me.”
The same day, he sent a note to another friend and orthodontist.
Burris is charged with conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud by bribing Hutchinson to take official action in his behalf as well as 14 fraud counts for specific transactions. He not only paid Hutchinson through various related entities, he provided trips by plane, including to a college football game, a round of golf at the Blessings private course in Fayetteville and orthodontic services to three close members of Hutchinson’s family, the indictment says. The legal retainer agreement they devised was just a cover for Hutchinson’s actions and efforts to influence other legislators and others, it says. Among those actions, Hutchinson pressured the Department of Human Services to speed Medicaid approval for applications by physicians employed in Burris’ clinics.
In an e-mail to Hutchinson, Burris listed as legislative objectives, among others, to remove restrictions on specialists, such as the bar to doing teeth cleaning by orthodontists, and to allow hygienists to take x-rays and do reversible procedures without supervision of a dentist. The indictment outlines meetings, exchanges of money and reports from Hutchinson on working on the objectives. Ultimately, Hutchinson introduced legislation aimed at changing dental practice rules, but proposed it for interim study to increase pressure for changes in a subsequent legislature. The indictment details communications by Hutchinson with other unnamed legislators on getting that proposal considered. The bill was introduced in the House in 2017 and Hutchinson filed a notice with the Senate that he would recuse from voting because he had a client who once had an interest in the legislation. The bill, HB 1250, became law in March 2017. It was sponsored by Republican Rep. Michelle Gray and Republican Sen. Lance Eads. CORRECTION: I wrote incorrectly originally that Michael John Gray, a Democrat, was the House sponsor.
Burris paid Hutchinson monthly between 2014 and 2016, generally $5,000. The indictment indicates, as Hutchinson’s earlier guilty plea indicated, unhappiness on the part of Burris with Hutchinson’s failure to follow through on a legitimate piece of legal business for a neighbor given the money he’d been paying him.
Federal court records say the indictment was returned Friday. An arraignment is set Sept. 11. The indictment was filed in the Western District of Arkansas. Later in the afternoon, the charges were announced by Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and U.S. Attorney Duane “DAK” Kees for the Western District of Arkansas.