Burris-Hutchinson Connection Casts New Light on Dental Board Funding Freeze

Burris-Hutchinson Connection Casts New Light on Dental Board Funding Freeze
Ben Burris (Graycen Colbert)

As you know, Ben Burris, an orthodontist who formerly lived in Fayetteville, has been charged with bribing former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, who has already admitted receiving the bribes.

That got us thinking back to 2013 and 2014, when Burris was lobbying to change the Arkansas Dental Practices Act.

A member of Burris’ team on Feb. 19, 2014, emailed an Arkansas Business reporter and included Hutchinson in the message. The email noted that “Jeremy Hutchison [sic] is a member of the Arkansas Senate and recently put a hold on the dental boards [sic] funding based on their actions. I thought it would be good for Jeremy to let you know, from his point of view, what’s going on. … Feel free to leave me out at this point.”

We didn’t know at the time that Burris was allegedly bribing Hutchinson, according to a federal indictment in the Western District of Arkansas in a case prosecuted jointly by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Fort Smith and the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section.

On Feb. 11, 2014, Burris allegedly sent a text to his insurance agent and friend, unnamed in the indictment, saying Hutchinson was going to freeze the budget of the Arkansas State Board of Dental Examiners.

“We own the dental board,” Burris allegedly said in a text on Feb. 20, 2014.

Hutchinson told Arkansas Business after the email was sent that he had received some complaints from constituents about the issue, so he placed a legislative “hold” on the dental board’s budget until he could get some answers.

He said his concern was that orthodontists couldn’t perform teeth cleanings because it would defy the Dental Practices Act.

“And that seemed to violate, in my mind, what the role of the dental board is, which is to protect the consumers and increase access,” Hutchinson said. “And they didn’t appear to be increasing access.”

Attorney Shane Wilkinson of Bentonville is representing Burris, who is facing 14 counts of honest services wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud.

Burris’ spokesman told Whispers last week that “Dr. Burris has long been a tireless advocate for improving patient well-being and increasing access to dental care. We are disappointed that the government has chosen to disregard clear and compelling evidence that undermines these charges, and we plan to mount a forceful defense.”

Arraignment is set for 11 a.m. Sept. 9 in Chief Magistrate Judge Erin Wiedemann’s courtroom in Fayetteville.

Hutchinson, 45, pleaded guilty in June in federal court to a single count of conspiracy to commit federal program bribery and to filing a false tax return. He has not yet been sentenced.