Circuit Court Judge Thomas J. Wright Wednesday afternoon granted District Attorney General Dan Armstrong’s motion to intervene in an ouster suit filed by Morristown attorney Betsy Stibler against Hamblen County Trustee John Baskette, who was indicted in August for allegedly stealing and other job-related felonies and misdemeanors.
Both Armstrong and Stibler will now represent the prosecution in the ouster suit.
A hearing on whether Baskette will be suspended from office pending the outcome of the criminal case is scheduled for Sept. 25.
If Wright concludes there’s ample justification for temporary suspension, an ouster hearing will be scheduled for a later date, and the Hamblen County Commission will appoint a temporary replacement for Baskette, according to Armstrong.
Should Baskette be suspended pending the outcome of the criminal case, the immediacy to proceed with the ouster suit in the near term would disappear. Baskette would be on unpaid suspension, and separated from taxpayers’ money. If Baskette ultimately prevails in the ouster suit, he will return to office and receive back pay.
Baskette will be arraigned in Hamblen County Criminal Court on Oct. 1. Barring delays, the trial likely will occur in February, according to the district attorney. Baskette rejected a plea offer that would have allowed him to resign, plea to a misdemeanor offense and keep nearly 20 years of accumulated state retirement benefits.
Stibler filed an ouster suit in compliance with state law, which provides that 10 citizens can petition the court to remove an elected official from office for alleged wrongdoing. Stibler, who represents 12 Hamblen County residents in the suit, expressed concern that Baskette would remain in office under the cloud of indictments during tax collection season.
According to Armstrong, Wright concluded the district attorney “has the absolute duty to bring this ouster suit.”
Armstrong says the prosecution does not have to prove the entire case to convince the judge to temporarily suspend Baskette from office. He says the intention is to significantly narrow the scope of proof for the suspension hearing.
Baskette allegedly admitted he did not make deposits within the three days prescribed by state law because he was afraid to carry large sums of money, according to the audit report. That alone could provide a basis to temporarily removed Baskette from office.
Armstrong has until Sept. 17 to file his application for temporary suspension.