Despite Hamblen County Trustee John Baskette’s professions of innocence, District Attorney General Dan Armstrong on Thursday presented evidence to a grand jury that resulted in 45 job-related sealed indictments, including three felony counts that could cost Baskette his freedom, his job and nearly 20 years of accumulated retirement benefits.
Baskette, 45, was taken into custody on Thursday and later released after posting a $100,000 bond. He’s scheduled to be arraigned in Hamblen County Criminal Court on Oct. 1, at which time a trial date could be set.
In the meantime – barring a resignation – Baskette will remain in office. Ouster suits can be initiated only following a conviction, not after an indictment.
The most serious charge Baskette faces is theft over $60,000 for allegedly stealing county funds between Nov. 5, 2018 and Jan. 28, 2019, according to the indictments. Defendants convicted of that offense face between eight and 12 years in prison.
The grand jury indicted Baskette for two felony counts of official misconduct for allegedly failing to make bank deposits within the three days required by state law, as well as one felony count of writing a $1,285 worthless check to pay his own property taxes, allegedly knowing the his bank account contained insufficient funds, according to the indictment.
He was indicted for the misdemeanor offense of destroying county records, “deposit slips previously prepared by an employee of Hamblen County trustee’s office,” and 40 counts of failure to deposit public funds, misdemeanors that are related to the theft and official-misconduct charges.
Baskette allegedly missed the three-day deadline to deposit $2.39 million in checks and – more significantly – $69,310 in cash, according to indictment totals.
Richard Talley, Baskette’s defense attorney, said earlier that his client committed no crime.
“I’ve heard no allegation of any money missing, now or ever,” Talley said. “We’re prepared to vigorously defend any allegations that were made. That’s where we stand … It’s a two-word response – not guilty.”
Public officials convicted of a job-related felony are ineligible to hold office, and lose employer contributions to their Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System plans. Baskette has nearly 20 years of accumulated TCRS benefits related to trustees, along with employment in the Hamblen County school system and at Walters State Community College, Talley confirmed earlier.
The defense attorney said Baskette rejected a plea bargain that could have allowed him to plead guilty to a misdemeanor offense, leave office voluntarily and keep his retirement benefits.
Baskette’s job-related activities aren’t his only legal problem.
The grand jury also indicted him for theft over $60,000 related to his private finances for allegedly “knowingly obtaining or exercising control over cash … belonging to multiple victims … with intent to permanently deprive the owners thereof,” the indictment states.
The government’s grand-jury witness list includes Stancil Ford, a former Hamblen County commissioner and state representative; Hamblen County Commissioner Wayne NeSmith, Morristown City Councilmember Tommy Pedigo, J.R. Bireley, Deward Wolfe, Jim Bond, Dana Rich, Larry Mangum, David Turner, Buddy Mayes and David Hayes.
Baskette’s personal finances were in such disarray that following his last election, he could not be bonded, and county government was forced to cover its potential liability with respect to the trustee’s office with an insurance policy, the same as office-holders who manage far less money, officials say.
Others on the witness list include Kendall Lawson, Baskette’s former chief deputy in the trustee’s office who recently resigned but will remain in the office until Aug. 23.
The lead law enforcement officials in the case were Joe Ensminger and Christy Tennant, criminal investigators with the state comptroller’s officer. Other officials involved were Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Agent Brian Pritchard and Bob Ellis, a criminal investigator with the DA’s office.
Hamblen County Mayor Bill Brittain, Anne Bryant-Hurst, Hamblen County finance director, and Amanda Hale, deputy finance director, were also available to testify before the grand jury on Thursday, according to the indictments.
Irregularities in the trustee’s office were cited in the 2017-18 audit. State auditors concluded the trustee’s report was not always filed in accordance with state law, and certain accounts maintained by the trustee’s office were not adequately collateralized, according to the audit.
The state comptroller’s office later initiated an investigative audit of the trustee’s office, the results of which have yet to be released to the public. The TBI launched a parallel investigation once possible signs of criminal activity surfaced, the DA said earlier.