District Attorney General Dan Armstrong has raised the stakes in the legal clash with Hamblen County Trustee John Baskette. Armstrong announced this morning that he’s contemplating filing a civil ouster suit that could result in Baskette’s removal from office before his criminal case is adjudicated.
Ouster suits filed under state civil statutes allow a plaintiff to seek an elected official’s temporary removal from office until the ouster suit is adjudicated, according to Armstrong. Baskette, who was indicted for theft over $60,000, felony official misconduct and other offenses, remains in office with access to public funds he’s accused of mismanaging in the past.
“I have not filed an ouster suit to date,” Armstrong said. “I’m exploring my options, given the public trust involved. I’m seriously considering my options with an ouster suit because this is a position of such public trust … I am in discussion with the state AG’s office in regard to the ouster suit.”
Baskette’s defense attorney, Dandridge lawyer Richard Talley, said this morning he hasn’t spoken with Armstrong since the day Baskette was indicted, and “(has) not heard anything about this.”
County officials originally indicated an ouster was not possible following an indictment. The initial belief was that a conviction was required to oust an elected official.
However, Tennessee law provides that the state attorney general, the local DA, the county mayor and the county attorney have the authority to file a civil ouster suit. Also 10 citizens who believe an elected official has committed official misconduct can file a civil ouster suit, but there are limitations on the group of 10 and other possible plaintiffs.
All civil ouster suits must cross the desk of the district attorney, who has the option to authorize the lawsuit, dismiss it or take the lead in the civil litigation himself or herself, according to state law.
The bases of a civil ouster suit include a public official who “willfully neglect(s) to perform any duty enjoined upon such officer by any of the laws of the state.”
A Hamblen County grand jury indicted Baskette for 40 counts of failing to deposit public funds within the three days specified by state law. Baskette allegedly conceded he did not make timely deposits – and squirreled-away cash in his office - because he was afraid to transport cash to the bank, according to a state comptroller’s office audit report published after Baskette was indicted.
“Baskette admitted to investigators that he withheld cash from daily collections, created new deposit slips that included only checks for deposit, and hid the undeposited cash collections in various locations in his office,” the report states. “He contended that he did not deposit the cash collections because he feared carrying large amounts of cash alone to the bank.”
There’s no indication that Baskette feared carrying cash prior to the 33-day period that began on Nov. 5, 2018, and there’s ample evidence that Baskette had no fear of walking about with large amounts of folding money.
Investigative auditors concluded Baskette owed personal debts to several people for equipment sales, cattle sales and personal loans and that he requested the business be conducted in cash.
Despite assertions to the contrary, the audit report states that reviews of bank security video and Baskette’s personal bank activity “indicate that Baskette made numerous cash transactions,” the report states.
“Bank security photographs showed that Baskette made several cash transactions and show he was not fearful of carrying large amounts of cash as he previously stated to investigator,” the report further states.
Baskette was scheduled to appear in Hamblen County General Sessions Court on Tuesday to answer charges he allegedly failed to repay personal debts of $22,900 to Stancil Ford, a former county commissioner and state representative for cattle; $11,000 for farm equipment to Wayne Nesmith, a current county commission; and $9,950 to Dana Rich for “partnership equipment.”
Talley said those lawsuits were dismissed after Baskette paid the debts in full.
“That’s my information,” Talley said. “Those cases are resolved.”
Baskette is scheduled to be arraigned on Oct. 1. The district attorney says if all goes as expected, the trial will be scheduled for some time in February.
If Baskette is convicted of a job-related felony, he will automatically be removed from office and deprived of employer contributions to the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System, including contributions made when he was working in the Hamblen County school system and at Walters State Community College, Talley confirmed.