Prosecutors: Ex-medical examiner at center of opioid ring

A former medical examiner for several metro Atlanta counties was at the center of an opioid ring, writing prescriptions for powerful pain pills in exchange for sexual favors and nude photos, federal prosecutors said Thursday.

Dr. Joseph Burton faces charges of conspiring to distribute and dispense controlled substances and illegal drug distribution, U.S. Attorney Byung "BJay" Pak said at a news conference. As a consulting pathologist, Burton worked to determine the medical causes of disease and death. Over the years, he issued findings and gave testimony in many criminal cases, some of them highly publicized.

"Dr. Burton chose to sell his medical license, credibility and position of prominence as a premier subject matter expert for complex cases for sex," Pak said.

Seven other people also face federal conspiracy charges, and Pak said nearly four dozen people have been arrested in connection with the opioid ring, many of them facing state charges.

Burton was previously indicted in October on illegal drug distribution charges, but a new indictment announced Thursday adds the conspiracy charges and seven co-defendants.

Defense attorney Buddy Parker said Burton plans to plead not guilty to the new charges.

Burton didn't have the kind of practice where opioids or painkillers are prescribed and didn't regularly see patients, Pak said. But over a period of about two years beginning in July 2015, he issued more than 1,100 prescriptions for more than 108,000 doses of opioids, like oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone, Pak said.

The prescriptions were filled at more than 300 pharmacies and the pills were sold to people who had no legitimate medical need for them, Pak said.

Investigators began examining Burton's prescription records after receiving a tip from a confidential source, said Special Agent Rob Murphy, who heads the Atlanta office of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Pak said this prosecution is part of a new effort called Operation SCOPE, or Strategically Combatting Opioids Through Prosecution and Enforcement, that focuses in part on people who illegally prescribe and distribute opioids. That's important, he said, because the National Institute of Drug Abuse has said 80 percent of heroin users reported using prescription opioids before using heroin.

Murphy said this case represents the worst of the worst because it involves a member of the medical profession.

"What I think this case demonstrates clearly is how one bad, corrupt individual with a pen and a prescription pad can turn that into a weapon of mass destruction," he said.