MILTON, GA — A former forensic pathologist and medical examiner will serve eight years in federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to illegally distribute opioid painkillers in exchange for sexual favors from women, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia said.
Dr. Joseph L. Burton, who was indicted in February along with several co-defendants, pleaded guilty May 22 to conspiracy to unlawfully distribute and dispense controlled substances outside of the normal course of professional practice and without a legitimate medical purpose, the office added. Burton, 73, of Milton, will also have to serve three years on probation once he’s released from prison.
“As a medical professional, Dr. Burton violated both his legal and ethical responsibilities when he knowingly wrote hundreds of illegal opioid prescriptions in exchange for sexual favors,” said U.S. Attorney BJay Pak. “We will continue to work closely with our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners to hold those accountable who unlawfully distribute opioids in our community.”
According to federal prosecutors, Dr. Burton was a licensed physician who operated as a consulting pathologist to determine the medical causes of diseases and death. Burton served as the chief medical examiner in DeKalb County and senior consulting pathologist for Cobb, Gwinnett and Paulding counties before opening his Milton-based firm in 2000.
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The government began investigating the doctor 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.
For about two years beginning in July 2015, Dr. Burton issued more than 1,100 opioid prescriptions, which amounted to over 108,000 individual doses, including over 66,000 30mg oxycodone pills, Pak’s office states. 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.”
The doctor also prescribed opioids to people without conducting a thorough examination, and on occasion, without meeting them at all. Co-defendants Tiffany Willis, Jennifer Hunter and Rhonda Haugland each engaged in a sexual relationship with Dr. Burton in exchange for prescriptions in their names, as well as the names of others, federal prosecutors note.
Hunter, Haugland, and Willis would fill their prescriptions and sell the pills, and obtain more prescriptions from Burton for other individuals, 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. The approximate street value of the oxycodone pills that Burton prescribed exceeds $2 million, the feds added.
The following co-defendants have also pleaded guilty or been sentenced:
The feds were aided in their efforts by 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 Rome Police Department.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys John T. DeGenova and C. Brock Brockington, deputy chief of the Narcotics & Dangerous Drugs Section are prosecuting the case.
Image via Cherokee County Adult Detention Center