Medical Examiner Accused of Exchanging Opioid Scripts for Sexual Favors

By Paul Gaita 03/06/18

Prosecutors allege that Joseph Burton wrote 1,100 prescriptions without doing a thorough exam and in some cases, never meeting patients at all.

Male doctor chatting to female patient behind desk

Federal prosecutors have charged a prominent former medical examiner with writing more than one thousand prescriptions for opioid pain medication, and conspiring to sell them as part of an opioid distribution ring based in Georgia.

Dr. Joseph R. Burton, 76, has been accused of conspiring to distribute and dispense controlled substances and illegal drug distribution; Burton, who served as medical examiner for several counties near Atlanta, and gave testimony at several high profile criminal cases, was also indicted on racketeering charges related to the alleged operation.

According to a statement issued by the U.S. Attorney's Office, Burton traded prescriptions for sexual favors with at least three women also charged in the same federal indictment.

"Burton traded away his responsibility as a licensed doctor and respected pathologist by allegedly writing unnecessary prescriptions in exchange for sex and romantic companionship," said U.S. Attorney Byung "BJay" Pak in the statement. "His associates sought to profit by having those prescriptions filled, and then selling those drugs, which included opioid painkillers like oxycodone. The DEA and local law enforcement have halted this unlawful distribution of opioids into our community, and we are committed to prosecuting those who sought to profit."

According to Pak, the indictment—which was handed down to Burton and seven other individuals by a federal grand jury on March 1—and other information presented in court, Burton came under scrutiny of federal prosecutors in 2017, after the Georgia Drug & Narcotics Agency found that he had written a large number of prescriptions for opioid painkillers, despite his lack of a medical clinic or regular patients. 

For a period of nearly three years beginning in July 2015, Burton is alleged to have written 1,100 prescriptions—which according to the U.S. District Attorney's statement, amounted to more than 108,000 individual doses, including more than 66,000 30mg oxycodone pills—to patients without conducting a thorough exam, and in some cases, never meeting them at all.

The statement also alleges that Burton wrote prescriptions for three women—co-defendants Jennifer Hunter, 29; Rhonda Haugland, 59; and Tiffany Willis, 26—in exchange for a physical and romantic relationship with each of them. The three women then allegedly filled these prescriptions and sold the pills in at least nine Atlanta-area counties, including Cherokee, Barrow and Paulding counties.

Burton was previously arrested in October 2017 on a federal criminal complaint and indicted on what the statement described as a "narrower" set of charges.

Burton's defense attorney, Buddy Parker, said that his client plans to plead not guilty to the new charges.

The case was part of Operation SCOPE (Strategically Combatting Opioids through Prosecution and Enforcement), an initiative launched by Pak to bring individuals who are over-prescribing and over-dispensing pain medication to justice. The investigation came about as a coordinated effort between numerous county sheriff's offices and police departments, the DEA and Georgia Drug and Narcotics Agency.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.