Dr. Ben Burris, formerly of Fayetteville, was sentenced Monday to a year and a day in federal prison for bribing former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson.
U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Brooks also sentenced Burris, 50, of Florida, to a year of probation and fined the orthodontist $157,500, according to the Sentencing Minute Sheet filed in Burris’ case in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville.
In a deal with federal prosecutors in the Western District of Arkansas, Burris pleaded guilty in September to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud. In exchange, prosecutors agreed to dismiss 14 additional counts of honest services fraud that were alleged in a grand jury indictment. The maximum sentence for the crime of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud is 20 years.
Burris’ plea agreement acknowledged multiple bribes of an elected official. He acknowledged that he paid Hutchinson $157,500 between February 2014 and November 2016, and gave Hutchinson’s children free braces, with the intent of influencing Hutchinson’s official actions as a legislator.
First on a list of “Legislative Objectives” that Burris sent Hutchinson was amending the state Dental Practices Act so that orthodontists could practice general dentistry, a restriction that created conflict between Burris and the Arkansas Board of Dental Examiners.
In a Jan. 10 filing, David Clay Fowlkes, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, said the year and a day punishment was reasonable and appropriate considering the facts in the case.
Burris pleaded guilty “well in advance of trial; reaped little economic benefit from his criminal conduct; has no criminal history; has significant health problems; and presents little to no risk of re-offending after release from incarceration,” the filing said. “Burris’s guilty plea serves an important deterrent effect in that it makes clear that bribe arrangements cannot be cleverly disguised as legal work for attorney legislators, regardless of whether the attorney legislator performed work or not.”
The filing, by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Elser and Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Mazzanti, didn’t describe Burris’ health problems.
Hutchinson had performed some legitimate legal work for Burris, but Fowlkes said “it was generally of poor quality as shown by a default judgment being entered in August 2015 against Burris for almost $14,000, plus interest, and over $4,000 in attorney’s fees in January 2016.”
After the sentencing, which took about an hour Monday morning, Burris was allowed to remain out on bond until he has to report for prison, which will be no later than March 2.
In 2019, Hutchinson, a Republican lawmaker from Little Rock and a nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from Burris and other federal crimes. He has not yet been sentenced.