FAYETTEVILLE – A Florida dentist, formerly of Arkansas, pleaded guilty today to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud in a scheme with former Arkansas State Senator Jeremy Hutchinson that occurred between 2014 and 2016.
U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks presided over the change of plea hearing, in which Benjamin Gray Burris, age 49, pleaded guilty to count one of an Indictment issued by a grand jury charging him with conspiracy to commit honest services fraud. Burris was charged with additional counts of honest services wire fraud, but according to the terms of the plea agreement, those charges will be dismissed at sentencing.
According to court documents, between February of 2014 through November of 2016, Burris was the owner of several orthodontic clinics and practiced as an orthodontist through Arkansas. The scheme began when on February 27, 2014, Burris, State Senator Jeremy Hutchinson, and others met for a dinner at a Little Rock restaurant and discussed Burris’s legislative objectives and hiring Hutchinson as Burris’s corporate legal counsel. Jeremy Hutchinson, who then represented state Senate District 33, comprised of portions of Pulaski and Saline County, Arkansas, stated that as part of any arrangement there needed to be “real legal work.” In his plea agreement, Burris admitted that part of his intent in hiring Hutchinson was to enable Burris to influence and request official action from Hutchinson on legislative issues and other matters as the need arose. Throughout the course of their arrangement, Burris’s legal entities paid Hutchinson Law Firm an approximate total of $157,500 at a rate of approximately $5,000 per month as a general retainer and Hutchinson was assigned legal work.
Specifically, Burris sent Hutchinson an email outlining Burris’s “Legislative Objectives” in late February of 2014 in which Burris stated that he wanted specialty restrictions on orthodontists removed. On January 26, 2015, Hutchinson filed a shell bill in the Arkansas Senate entitled “An Act to Clarify the Laws Governing Dental Practice.” Later on, April 6, 2015, Hutchinson filed a related Interim Study Proposal with the Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare, and Labor. On September 22, 2015, Hutchinson filed another Interim Study Proposal (ISP-2015-154) on the subject. This ISP, among other things, proposed to remove the specialist restriction for orthodontists. According to text messages cited in Burris’s plea agreement, in 2016 Burris texted Hutchinson complaining about a lack of “ROI” also known as “return on investment” in his arrangement with Hutchinson and he requested specific updates on legislative matters. ISP-2015-154 was eventually filed as House Bill 1250 on January 23, 2017, after Hutchinson claimed a belated conflict, in the 91st General Assembly of the State of Arkansas, passed, and was later signed into law on or about March 15, 2017.
Burris sold his businesses and moved to Florida in the spring of 2017 and has not practiced in Arkansas since that time.
“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.”
“Our nation has a well-established process by which its citizens communicate with their elected officials, and this process can never include bribery or fraud,” said FBI Little Rock Special Agent in Charge James A. Dawson. “When Mr. Burris attempted to illegally induce the alteration of laws to favor his own purposes, he trod directly upon the democratic institutions of our Republic.”
Burris’s sentencing is expected to take place in approximately four months. Burris faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison for the crime for which he pled guilty, however, the plea agreement also states that if the Court wishes to sentence Burris to a sentence that is not a year and a day in federal prison, Burris will have the right to withdraw from the plea agreement. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
The FBI and the IRS are investigating the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ben Wulff, Allison Bragg and Stephanie Mazzanti are prosecuting the case for the United States.
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