By 5 p.m. Wednesday, embattled Hamblen County Trustee John Baskette will have decided whether he will stay – and endeavor to clear his name – or willingly go, Richard Talley, Baskette’s attorney said Friday afternoon.
“I have to meet with John and talk to him,” Talley said. “Either we’re going to say we are going to take a deal he could live with or go to trial. There will be an announcement whether we are going to fish or cut bait.”
The 2018 Hamblen County audit indicated monthly reports from the trustee’s office were not always filed in accordance with state law, and that certain accounts were not adequately collateralized. Subsequent reports surfaced about Baskette, who is essentially Hamblen County’s banker, allegedly failing to make timely bank deposits.
As a result of the audit findings, the state comptroller’s office launched an investigation of the Hamblen County trustee’s office. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation launched a parallel criminal inquiry after state auditors “reached a place in their investigation when they deemed it possible” there had been “criminal-law violations,” District Attorney General Dan Armstrong said in May.
At some point, the comptroller’s audit will be published. The TBI report is only for the eyes of law enforcement.
Stay or go?
If Baskette goes there will still be repercussions.
Any deal would require Baskette’s immediate resignation and possibly a final resolution to the case in front of a judge. The trustee would lose his annual salary of approximately $80,000, his health insurance and other taxpayer-funded benefits.
If he stays, he could face worse.
Should Baskette be convicted of a felony related to his employment – official misconduct – he would lose all of the above, plus retirement benefits through the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System, according to Talley.
Not only could Baskette be denied benefits for the seven years he’s served as Hamblen County trustee, he could also lose benefits related to his employment in the Hamblen County school system and at Walters State Community College, according to Talley, who says Baskette has been a TCRS participant for almost 20 years.
A TCRS participant typically must contribute 5% of his or her salary to retirement. The employer contribution is around 9%. If he’s convicted of a job-related felony, he would be able to recover his contributions, plus interest.
The Wednesday afternoon deadline isn’t a time boundary of Baskette’s choosing. The deadline was imposed on Wednesday after Talley met with District Attorney General Dan Armstrong, Assistant DA Kim Morrison, Bob Ellis, a criminal investigator with the DA’s office, TBI Agent Brian Pritchard and Joe Ensminger, a criminal investigator with the comptroller’s office.
Neither Armstrong nor Talley are talking about what transpired at the conference – a meeting Baskette did not attend.
If Armstrong is convinced he can make a case against the trustee, he will present the case to a Hamblen County grand jury. The next scheduled session of the grand jury is in September, but Armstrong could convene a special grand jury with little notice.
If Baskette opts to accept a deal and voluntarily leave office, the Hamblen County Commission would appoint a successor, who would serve until the August 2020 election, but the commission would have to give a week’s notice before filling the vacancy.
State law provides that when a trustee leaves office, his or her chief deputy manages operations until the legislative body acts.
The Hamblen County Republican Party primary in the trustee’s race will be held in March 2020, which in GOP-dominated Hamblen County is effectively Election Day. The general election will be held in August 2020.
Whatever happens on Wednesday, Baskette’s personal debts are issues that will be resolved at a later time. When Baskette was re-elected in 2016, his personal finances were in such a state that he could not be bonded as a trustee, multiple sources say.
Hamblen County government was compelled to take out an insurance policy to limit possible liability. Other key county employees are now covered by insurance instead of bonds, but the liability is so great with a trustee, an officer who handles tens of millions of dollars, that county government had planned to cover the liability with a bond and an insurance policy, the sources confirmed.
Three people are suing Baskette to recover personal debts totaling tens of thousands of dollars the trustee allegedly has not repaid. He was sued by a Georgia cattle farmer who alleged Baskette violated the terms of their agreement. That lawsuit was settled out of court.