I sat in U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker’s courtroom last Tuesday as Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Mazzanti described evidence that the government was prepared to use to prove that former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson had accepted bribes, misused campaign funds and cheated on his federal taxes.
Among other nuggets, she referred to a “news editorial” dated Jan. 18, 2016, that “Individual A” — an orthodontist matching the description of Dr. Ben Burris, formerly of Fayetteville — called to Hutchinson’s attention. “This is a huge deal,” he said in a text message. “It will be useful when we push for legislative change.”
This is an Opinion
I’m going to presume that the editorial Burris was referring to appeared in Arkansas Business, because our editorial that day took his side in his effort to change the Dental Practices Act, which forbade dental specialists (like orthodontists) from providing services outside their specialty. Burris wanted his orthodontic clinics to be able to provide general dentistry, like cleanings, but to do so, he had to give up his specialty license.
We called the DPA’s restriction on specialists “absurd, anticompetitive and a disservice to the public,” and so it was — especially in a state short on dentists. Ultimately, that part of the law was amended in 2017 by legislation that Hutchinson introduced.
Our health care reporter, Mark Friedman, reported on Hutchinson’s first efforts to change the law in March 2014 in an article that drew a direct line between the proposed legislation and Burris’ dispute with the Arkansas Board of Dental Examiners. Hutchinson said the restriction on specialists “seemed to violate, in my mind, what the role of the dental board is, which is to protect the consumers and increase access. And they didn’t appear to be increasing access.”
We didn’t know then — how could we? — that Burris put Hutchinson on a $5,000-a-month retainer right about that time, and that Hutchinson understood that the only reason he was made outside counsel for Burris’ chain of orthodontist clinics was that he was an elected official in a position to champion Burris’ agenda. That, needless to say, is not how representative democracy is supposed to work, even if the goal is worthy.
Still, it’s nice to know that an Arkansas Business editorial was considered a big deal and an aid in changing legislation.
Hutchinson knew he was being bribed to take action favoring his benefactor, but “Individual A” has been charged with no crime. This wasn’t Hutchinson’s only “arrangement” — the word “Individual A” used in a text complaining about the “ROI” on his monthly payments.
Hutchinson is scheduled to plead guilty next Monday to a conspiracy charge in federal court in Springfield, Missouri. In related cases there, lobbyist and health care executive Rusty Cranford has pleaded guilty to paying Hutchinson $500,000 in bribes disguised as legal fees, and Cranford’s associate Robin Raveendran has also pleaded guilty to bribing Hutchinson.
Hutchinson also had an arrangement with John Goodson, the Texarkana class-action attorney. Goodson recently told the Arkansas Times that he paid Hutchinson almost $700,000 over a period of years at a rate of between $5,000 and $20,000 a month as an up-front retainer in exchange for three class-action referrals that netted his firm $740,000.
Lawyers I’ve talked to say that’s a very strange arrangement — a monthly up-front retainer that didn’t depend on the ultimate value of the cases referred — but it hasn’t resulted in any criminal charges. Unless that income was part of the tax fraud charge that Hutchinson pleaded to last week.
Our summer intern, Serene Garcia, the pride of Henderson State University, accompanied me to Judge Baker’s courtroom last week. Since I don’t have a permission slip to take my cellphone into the federal courthouse, it’s nice to have someone to send to the car to call back to the office if something unexpected happens.
Plus, it’s just a great experience for an aspiring journalist to see the news happen. I remember the first time I covered a federal court hearing in the summer of 1982, and I would have been lost if the legendary Carol Griffee hadn’t taken pity on me and explained what was involved in getting an injunction.
I took an intern with me to Martha Shoffner’s plea hearing in May 2013. I explained to the young padawan what would happen and things to watch for. Then the whole courtroom sat in stunned silence as Shoffner blew up the excellent plea deal Chuck Banks had negotiated. (She would do it again later that year.) My intern leaned over to me and whispered, “This isn’t what you said would happen.”
And that’s why I love the news business.
Email Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, at GMoritz@ABPG.com and follow her on Twitter at @gwenmoritz.