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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Northern District of Georgia

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Former Georgia medical examiner pleads guilty to opioid conspiracy

ATLANTA – Dr. Joseph L. Burton, a former county medical examiner and forensic pathologist, pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiring to illegally distribute opioid painkillers in exchange for sexual favors.  Dr. Burton was indicted federally along with seven other individuals in February 2018; five of those individuals have also pleaded guilty to similar charges.  This case was presented as a part of Operation SCOPE, (Strategically Combatting Opioids through Prosecution and Enforcement), an initiative that targets individuals who illegally prescribe opioids and drug traffickers who also distribute these dangerous and addictive drugs.

“This defendant traded prescriptions for sex and is responsible for distributing thousands of doses of dangerous opioids within our community,” said U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak.  “We are grateful for the dedicated work of our local and federal law enforcement partners who are equally committed to the arrest and prosecution of those who seek to profit from unlawfully distributing these drugs.” 

“This guilty plea is a shining example of the great working relationship that DEA has with its law enforcement partners and the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” said Robert J. Murphy, Special Agent in Charge of the Atlanta Field Division of the DEA.  “In the wake of this country’s prescription opioid epidemic, DEA’s top priority is to investigate individuals like Dr. Burton who egregiously violate the law by illegally prescribing prescription opioids (66,000 oxycodone pills) in exchange for sexual favors. He prescribed these pills even though he was not regularly seeing patients or operating a medical facility. The community is now safer because of his prosecution.”

According to U.S. Attorney Pak, the indictment, and other information presented in court: Dr. Burton, a licensed physician, operated as a consulting pathologist to determine the medical causes of diseases and death.  Federal agents began investigating Dr. Burton after agents with the Georgia Drug & Narcotics Agency and the Georgia Composite Medical Board visited him in early 2017 and discovered that he was prescribing painkillers to a large number of patients without operating a medical clinic or regularly seeing patients.  Beginning in July 2015, for an approximate two-year period, Dr. Burton issued over 1,100 opioid prescriptions, which amounted to over 108,000 individual doses, including over 66,000 30mg oxycodone pills.  Dr. Burton prescribed opioids such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone, irrespective of any legitimate medical purpose and outside the normal course of professional practice, in exchange for sexual favors and romantic affection. 

Dr. Burton prescribed opioids to individuals without conducting a thorough examination, and on occasion, without meeting them at all.  Co-defendants Jennifer Hunter, Rhonda Haugland, and Tiffany Willis each engaged in a sexual relationship with Dr. Burton in exchange for prescriptions in their names, as well as the names of others.  Hunter, Haugland, and Willis would fill their prescriptions and sell the pills, and then obtain more prescriptions from Burton for other people, who paid them for getting the prescriptions.  Dr. Burton also supplied the co-defendants with blank prescriptions and instructed them on how to fill them out.         

Joseph Lawson Burton, 73, of Milton, Georgia, pleaded guilty to the offense of conspiracy to unlawfully distribute and dispense controlled substances outside of the normal course of professional practice and without a legitimate medical purpose on May 22, 2018.  Burton’s sentencing is scheduled for August 29, 2018.

These following co-defendants have also pleaded guilty:

●Jennifer Hunter, 29, of Acworth, Georgia, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to unlawfully distribute and dispense controlled substances on May 2, 2018.  Hunter’s sentencing is scheduled for August 7, 2018.

●Tiffany Willis, 26, of Cartersville, Georgia, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to unlawfully distribute and dispense controlled substances on May 2, 2018.  Willis’s sentencing is scheduled for August 7, 2018.

●Michelle Danner, 45, of Acworth, Georgia, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to unlawfully distribute and dispense controlled substances on May 15, 2018.  Danner’s sentencing is scheduled for August 9, 2018.

●Jerry Stephens, Jr., 30, of Cartersville, Georgia, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to unlawfully distribute and dispense controlled substances and one count of distribution and dispensation of a controlled substance on May 8, 2018.  Stephens’s sentencing is scheduled for August 9, 2018.

●Rodney Kennedy, 63, of Cartersville, Georgia pleaded guilty to conspiracy to unlawfully distribute and dispense controlled substances on May 10, 2018.  Kennedy’s sentencing is scheduled for August 9, 2018.

This case is being investigated by the DEA.  The case is a coordinated effort with the Acworth Police Department, Barrow County Sheriff’s Office, Bartow County District Attorney’s Office, Bartow County Sheriff’s Office, Cartersville Police Department, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, Cherokee County District Attorney’s Office, Clayton County Police Department, Cobb County Sheriff’s Office, Cobb County District Attorney’s Office, Cobb County Police Department, Fayette County Sheriff’s Office, Floyd County District Attorney’s Office, Floyd County Sheriff’s Office, Georgia Department of Community Supervision, Georgia Composite Medical Board, Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency, Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office, Hall County Sheriff’s Office, Jonesboro Police Department, Oakwood Police Department, Paulding County Sheriff’s Office, and the Rome Police Department.   

 Assistant U.S. Attorney John T. DeGenova and C. Brock Brockington, Deputy Chief of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Section are prosecuting the case.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta recommends parents and children learn about the dangers of drugs at the following web site: www.justthinktwice.gov.

For further information please contact the U.S. Attorney’s Public Affairs Office at USAGAN.PressEmails@usdoj.gov or (404) 581-6016.  The Internet address for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia is http://www.justice.gov/usao-ndga.

Updated May 23, 2018