Benjamin Burris, an orthodontist who once lived in Fort Smith and Fayetteville, entered a negotiated guilty plea today to one count of conspiring to bribe then-Republican Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, the governor’s nephew.
Fourteen other counts were dismissed in federal court for the western district of Arkansas.
The government has agreed to a downward departure in the sentencing for the crime, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. It will recommend a sentence of one year and one day for Burris. It made no stipulation on the length of supervised release after that or fines.
Judge Timothy Brooks allowed Burris to remain free until sentencing, but his travel is restricted to Orange County, Fla., and Washington County.
Hutchinson had already pleaded guilty in the case. He received more than $157,000 from Burris for putative legal services from 2014 to 2016. Though Hutchinson said he’d have to do real legal work, the plea agreement stipulates that part of Burris’ intent was to influence and request official action by Hutchinson on legislative issues. Burris provided free braces for Hutchinson’s children in return for influencing official acts.
Among those acts was work to change the law regulating orthodontists that limited them to performing specialty acts. Among others, he wanted the law changed to expand services dental hygienists could provide without a dentist’s supervision. Hutchinson spoke in favor of a law change before a legislative committee and introduced legislation to achieve what Burris wanted.
The agreement details how Burris became unhappy with Hutchinson’s failure to fulfill duties on some legitimate legal work he had pending.
Ultimately, the dental practices law was changed, but by then Burris had closed his Arkansas practice and moved to Florida.
Hutchinson already pleaded guilty to participating in the bribery conspiracy with Burris. He has also pleaded guilty in a larger case, the multi-million-dollar fraud involving a Missouri-based company that once provided Medicaid-reimbursed services in Arkansas. He hasn’t been sentenced in either case. A trial is still pending for the kingpins of the Missouri company, which also paid Hutchinson. He has surrendered his law license and largely been unseen since his pleas. He hopes his cooperation will produce lenience in his ultimate sentencing.
A statement from the U.S. attorney’s office:
“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 Acting United States Attorney David Clay Fowlkes. “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. The exposure of the truth of this arrangement, from the bribe payor to the bribe recipient, brings honor to our people, our law enforcement, and our Court institutions. They have all displayed great strength in exposing and opposing official corruption and are a credit to our nation of laws. We are also indebted to the many witnesses who came forward to tell their stories. The series of cases in our sprawling corruption investigations has required the coordination of not only this office, but also the Eastern District of Arkansas, the Western District of Missouri, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Internal Revenue Service- Criminal Investigation. We are grateful for their continued assistance.”