District Attorney General Dan Armstrong on Wednesday filed a motion to intervene in an ouster suit against Hamblen County Trustee John Baskette that was filed by Morristown attorney Betsy Stibler.
Failure to intercede in the civil case could compromise Baskette’s criminal prosecution or muck it altogether, according to Armstrong.
Prosecutors “possess all the evidence necessary to prove the causes of action,” the motion to intercede states.
The only public documents in Baskette’s criminal case are the indictments and the state comptroller’s office audit report.
An indictment is not evidence, Armstrong said.
Stibler’s ouster suit relies heavily on allegations in the indictments. The comptroller’s audit report can only be introduced through its author. Otherwise, Armstrong says, it’s considered hearsay.
By late this morning, Stibler had issued no subpoenas related to the ouster suit.
Armstrong says he and Stibler have the same goal – to remove the trustee from office, but their methods differ. Stibler did not consult with the district attorney’s office before filing the ouster suit and a motion to temporarily remove Baskette from office until the ouster suit is adjudicated.
“I think we have to have our ducks in a row,” Armstrong said this morning. “There was no doubt I was going to file (an ouster suit). There was no doubt … The main thing I’m trying to do is to protect the criminal case.”
Prior to Stibler’s filing the ouster suit, Armstrong had said publicly he was “seriously considering” his options and discussing an ouster suit with the state attorney general’s office.
The possible pitfalls of proceeding into an ouster suit without adequate preparation are unambiguous, according to Armstrong. State law provides that office holders can be compelled to testify at their ouster hearing. In other words, an elected official cannot invoke a right not to remain silent in the civil proceeding, according to the prosecutor.
If the target of an ouster suit is compelled to testify, two things happen. First, the testimony can’t be used against the office holder in a criminal case. Second, Armstrong says, if the office holder talks about anything related to the criminal prosecution in civil testimony, he or she “gets immunity” in those matters.
The temporary suspension hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 5 in Hamblen County Circuit Court. Judge Thomas J. Wright will preside. Armstrong says he plans to argue his motion to intervene at that time. Armstrong says that he plans to narrow the scope of the motion for suspension.
In making a case for Baskette’s temporary suspension, Armstrong says, he need not prove his entire case. If the scope of the motion is sufficiently restricted, Armstrong says he likely wouldn’t need to call more than one witness.
Armstrong says his target date for suspension hearing is Sept. 16. That’s one day after Baskette’s court-imposed response date.
If Wright concludes that Baskette should be temporarily suspended from office, pending the outcome of the ouster suit, the Hamblen County Commission will appoint a temporarily replacement, according to Armstrong, who says the trustee would not be paid during the suspension hearing.
If the ouster suit fails, however, Baskette would get back pay for the time he was suspended, according to the prosecutor.
Baskette is scheduled to be arraigned in Hamblen County Criminal Court on Oct. 1. The trial likely will be set for some time in February.
In other developments related to the Baskette case, two more debt-related lawsuits were filed against the Hamblen County Trustee.
The debt-related lawsuits are not directly related to Baskette’s indictments for job-related crimes. One is related to the grand jury indictment for theft over $60,000 related to the personal debts. In one suit, which Armstrong said was included in the theft over $60,000 allegation, Baskette allegedly borrowed money to purchase farm equipment he would sell and split the profits with the person who loaned the money.
Baskette allegedly never bought the equipment or returned the money.
The other lawsuit was filed in Hamblen County Circuit Court and alleged Baskette rented a car in December of 2018 and never returned the car to the rental company.