Facing a 4 p.m. plea deadline and mountains of rock-solid government proof - perhaps including a legally lethal dose of inadvertent, anxiety-related self-incrimination - Hamblen County Trustee John Baskette resigned Friday afternoon in a job-related prosecution.
“It’s a sad day in the history of Hamblen County,” Hamblen County Mayor Bill Brittain said Friday afternoon. “The events of the past several months have been a distraction, but it is time that county government moves on and focuses on conducting the business of our citizens. I’m confident that chief deputy Jill Margelowsky and her staff will continue to provide great service in the trustee’s office.”
Margelowsky won’t be heading the office for long. The Hamblen County Commission is scheduled to meet at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 23 to appoint a replacement, who will remain as Hamblen County trustee until August 2020.
District Attorney General Dan Armstrong declined to divulge the details of the agreement with Baskette.
Armstrong did not say that Baskette will keep his accumulated Tennessee Consolidated Retirements benefits.
However, from the outset, the option of pleading to lesser charges to keep his benefits was a carrot dangled in front of Baskette as an incentive to compel to leave office prior to a scheduled suspension hearing and subsequent criminal prosecution.
Previously, officials have said the offenses to which Baskette has agreed to plead guilty must be misdemeanors for him to retain his benefits.
Also elected officials convicted of job-related felonies cannot hold office in Tennessee.
The plea agreement ends the prosecution involving Baskette’s job-related offenses and makes the ouster suit filed by Morristown attorney Betsy Stibler on behalf of 12 Hamblen County citizens - in which Armstrong later intervened - moot.
Stibler said she’s grateful to the 12 that filed the ouster suit after the original public deadline Armstrong set for Baskette to willingly resign came and went.
After Baskette was indicted, Stibler filed the suit on behalf of her clients and Armstrong sought a judge’s ruling to intervene in the case.
“I believe without the ouster suit, he wouldn’t have accepted the second plea deal,” said Stibler. “I want to make sure the folks who stood up to protect the taxpayers of Hamblen County know we’re grateful.”
The agreement does not clear the felony-theft charge related to Baskette’s alleged criminal wrongdoing in private business deals in which Baskette allegedly enriched himself in an amount exceeding $60,000.
“We have reached an agreement as to the charges relating to his time in office,” Armstrong said Friday afternoon. “The felony case involving the theft from private citizens remains ongoing ... The grand jury returned an indictment for theft over $60,000. The grand jury found probable cause We have statements from victims and we are in continuing contact with the victims.”
Richard Talley, Baskette’s attorney, characterized the debt-related prosecution as “nonexistent cases.”
Baskette is scheduled to be arraigned in Hamblen County Criminal Court on Oct. 1 on the private debt-related charge. Barring delays, the trial likely commence in February, according to Armstrong.
Theft cases are sometimes settled out of court, but not without court-ordered restitution.
The investigation into the job-related crimes and the alleged private-debt crimes had different starting points, and at one time were separate criminal inquires.
The state comptroller’s office investigation began in December 2018, when a cash count revealed the Hamblen Country trustee’s office was about $90,000 short, according to an Aug. 16 audit report that appears to contain sufficient evidence to prove criminal wrongdoing.
“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. He contended that he did not deposit the cash collections because he feared carrying large amounts of cash alone to the bank.”
The grand jury indicted Baskette for two counts of official misconducted related to his allegedly failure to deposit cash receipts within three days, as required by state law. If the state comptroller’s audit report is correct, Baskette admitted to job-related felony that could have resulted in a conviction.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation joined the inquiry once possible evidence of criminal wrongdoing surfaced. The audit report documents apparent evidence of criminality.
On Feb. 4, one of Baskette’s family members opened a joint banking account with $450. The family member subsequently obtained an $89,000 loan, and deposited the money into the joint account, according to the audit report, which states Baskette zeroed the account on the same day.
“On Feb. 4, 2019, Baskette used the loan proceeds to pay three individuals via certified checks for whom he owned money,” the audit report states. “The $89,450 Baskette received form his family member to pay off his debits was nearly the same amount of cash he improperly withheld from the trustee’s office collections.
The private-debt investigation didn’t begin until June when Baskette’s business associates began complaining they’d been stiffed in private agreements involving personal loans, along with cattle and farm-machinery deals.
Baskette, who heads property-tax collections for Hamblen County, allegedly paid his 2018 property taxes with a bad check, according to the audit report.
“On March 8, 2019, this personal check was returned by the bank for insufficient funds, and the check was redeposited on March 29, 2019,” the audit report states. “The check was again returned by the bank on April 1, 2019, and Baskette’s bank account was closed on April 12, 2019.