Frustration, Demands to 'Get This Done' in Messages to Jeremy Hutchinson

Frustration, Demands to 'Get This Done' in Messages to Jeremy Hutchinson
Former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson has admitted taking bribes from Dr. Ben Burris, charges for which Burris has pleaded not guilty. (Composite photo illustration)

Former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson's plea agreement doesn't name the orthodontist from whom he admitted receiving bribes, but it is chock full of details pointing to Dr. Ben Burris, formerly of Fayetteville.

And Burris, who has not been charged with a crime, wasn't entirely satisfied with the "full service" he received for the $5,000 he was paying Hutchinson almost every month from May 2014 to November 2016.

In addition to his primary duty, which was attempting to pass Burris' legislative agenda, Hutchinson was also tasked with actual legal work — including what Burris referred to as "the plumber deal," an apparent reference to a legal dispute with a neighbor, former University of Arkansas punter Matt Wait.

"Why do I have to solve the problem with the neighbor?" the orthodontist — referred to by federal prosecutors as "Individual A" — wrote in a poorly punctuated text to Hutchinson in November 2016. "I pay you a lot of money a month for 'full service'? … 

"I am tired of it Jeremy. You're a nice guy but dammit I get tired of chasing you. My wife is ar [sic] her wits end. It's a full time job to chase you. Get this done or we are done. Done as of October 31."

More: Read Jeremy Hutchinson's plea agreement.

It wasn't Burris' first complaint about Hutchinson's legal work. In April 2016, according to the plea agreement, "Individual A" texted Hutchinson to say that he was "getting more and more frustrated with our arrangement." 

"Really?" Hutchinson texted back. "What can I do to improve that?"

Burris then laid out a list of matters he wanted Hutchinson to address, including "the plumber deal."

"5k a month [at] 200/hr is 25 hours. I'm happy to pay you but I need to get some ROI man like I told you a few weeks ago."

Hutchinson assured him that he was working on the issues. 

Burris then asked, "What can we do about the state of Arkansas restricting [the] dental boards they will accept for licensure."

"We have legislation that will do that," Hutchinson replied. "It's being heard in January of next year."

"Cool," Individual A replied.

Burris, who now practices in Florida, has declined comment on the bribery charge to which Hutchinson pleaded guilty on Tuesday.

Federal prosecutors in Fayetteville filed the charge Monday and transferred it to the Eastern District for a plea hearing in Little Rock on Tuesday, at which Hutchinson also pleaded guilty to filing a false income tax return.

In 2013, Burris was in a dispute with the Arkansas State Board of Dental Examiners because he was offering general dentistry services in addition to orthodontics, which was a violation of the Dental Practices Act. The act limited dental specialists, such as orthodontists, to their specialty except in emergency cases.

After agreeing to surrender his orthodontic license, Burris hired Hutchinson in February 2014 to champion changes in the DPA. According to the plea agreement, "Hutchinson explained that as part of the arrangement ... there needed to be real legal work. The purpose of the legal work was to conceal the true nature of the relationship, that is, Hutchinson would be paid to carry out Individual A's legislative objectives."

Hutchinson acknowledged that the orthodontist "hired him as outside counsel for his companies because of his position as an elected official" and that "he would never have been retained if not for his position as an elected official."

At first, the orthodontist seemed to think changing the DPA would be easy.

"The [ASBDE] has rolled over already and agreed with our guy that they need to rewrite the entire dental practice act," he texted to an unidentified person in February 2014. "We own them. I'm kinda disappointed that they quit so soon. Pansies."

But it would be three more years before Hutchinson shepherded a bill through the Legislature that became Act 489 of 2017. A portion of that law says, "The issuance of a specialist license does not limit a licensed dentist's ability to practice in any other area of dentistry for which the dentist is qualified, including general dentistry."

In addition to paying Hutchinson $157,500, Individual A also provided three of Hutchinson's family members with free orthodontic treatment worth approximately $15,000, according to the plea agreement.

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