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Dentist who bribed Jeremy Hutchinson gets a year and a day in federal prison

JEREMY HUTCHINSON: A man who bribed the former senator gets a year in prison. Hutchinson’s term awaits sentencing on this and two other federal cases in two states.

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Benjamin Burris, the Florida dentist who pleaded guilty in September to bribing then-Republican Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (nephew of Governor Hutchinson) was sentenced in Fayetteville today to a year and a day in prison and a $157,500 fine.

Judge Timothy Brooks also said the sentence would be followed by a year of supervised release on the charge of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud.

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Burris, 50, owned orthodontics clinics that operated in Arkansas 2014-16. A government news release said:

 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.   Throughout the course of their arrangement, Burris’s legal entities paid Hutchinson Law Firm a 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, passed in the 91st General Assembly of the State of Arkansas, and was later signed into law [by Governor Hutchinson] 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.

He remains free on bond but must surrender by March 2.

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Hutchinson has pleaded guilty in this case, in an income tax case in the Eastern District of Arkansas and in federal court in Missouri in a larger Arkansas legislator bribery/fraud case involving a Missouri-based provider of Medicaid-financed health services. He has not been sentenced. Sentencing of him and other former Arkansas legislators who’ve pleaded guilty in the bribery case — Eddie Cooper and Henry Wilkins — has been delayed pending trial of the couple who led the Missouri-based health provider.

In its sentencing memorandum on the Burris case, the government said its recommendation followed those in cases related to co-defendants in the conviction of Sen. Jonathan Woods in a bribery-kickback case involving Ecclesia College. The co-defendants who pleaded guilty were cut some slack. Woods insisted on his innocence and got 18 years.

The government said no state money was involved in this case, unlike the Woods case, just bribes paid by Burris to Hutchinson. Burris objected to pegging the fine to the legal payments, saying some legal work had been done. The government disputed that. The judge apparently accepted the argument that the payments were “merely a means to conceal the fact the payments were in fact bribes Burris paid to Hutchinson in exchange for official action.”