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November 1, 2013

Hodge pleads guilty

Former Whitley sheriff sentenced to 17 years for state charges

CORBIN — By John L. Ross / Staff Writer

“Guilty.”

That word was uttered 21 times by former Whitley County sheriff Lawrence Hodge during a hearing Thursday in which Hodge was slated to enter a plea.

Hodge faced a 21-count indictment charging multiple counts of abuse of public trust and tampering with evidence, and was scheduled for a jury trial Tuesday.

However, that trial was cancelled for Thursday’s hearing in Whitley County Circuit Court.

Already serving a federal sentence, shortly after 1 p.m. Thursday, Hodge emerged from the holding area, handcuffed, shackled and chained at the waist.

He joined his attorneys, William G. Crabtree and Jason Williams, and sat at the defense table.

Moments later, Hodge, Crabtree and Williams were asked to stand at the podium, so the plea agreement hearing could begin.

Judge David A. Tapp, of Pulaski County, who was assigned as a special judge in this case earlier this year, started Thursday afternoon’s hearing by reading Hodge’s 21-count indictment against him.

All his charges are considered class C and D felonies, according to Tapp.

Tapp then read the plea agreement — and what sentence was imposed for each count and the dollar amount of restitution for each count.

Tapp then asked Hodge if he agreed with the counts listed on the indictment.

Hodge offered a quiet “yes.”

Tapp reviewed the various parameters of the plea agreement, then asked Hodge to give the court a general description of the activities leading to the charges.

“What were you up to, Mr. Hodge?” Tapp asked.

Several moments of silence ensued, and Hodge and Crabtree whispered to each other during that time.

“What’s going on here, Mr. Crabtree?” Tapp asked. “Mr. Hodge took an oath to tell the truth.”

The judge added he wanted “to make absolutely sure” that Hodge “definitely had no intention to renunciate” the agreement.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Allen C. Trimble then stood at the prosecution’s table, and told Tapp he could offer the requested general description.

Trimble then explained that the first eight counts on the indictment involve a “drug and alcohol” account.

He explained that from 2003-2010, when the account was maintained by the sheriff’s office, there “was a considerable amount of money in it.”

Trimble said that those monies were intended for law enforcement to assist in investigating undercover drug operations — the cash would be used for confidential informants and for cash to make undercover drug buys.

Meanwhile, according to Trimble, the Kentucky state auditor’s office audited the account.

“During this period, checks were written to Mr. Hodge (for) drug buys and CI (confidential informant) fees,” Trimble said. “(But) no cases were presented to the grand jury.”

The next four counts, 9 through 12, according to Trimble, were connected to a fee account for the sheriff’s office from 2005-2008.

Money was listed as missing from that account, according to the Commonwealth’s attorney.

Trimble also told the court he was prepared to enter into evidence that those missing monies were “misused or used inappropriately” through Hodge’s office.

The next five counts on the indictment involve a search warrant conducted on the residence of Rick Benson — where several firearms were seized.

“Those guns (were) sold to local people all outside and (from) an illegal standpoint,” Trimble said.

The final count on the indictment involves a case where a county constable seized a certain amount of cash and drugs from a suspect, he said. “(That cash and drugs were) not logged into evidence inventory and disappeared,” Trimble said.

Once that general description was offered, Tapp then read the agreement, and asked Hodge count-by-count if he was guilty of the crimes listed.

Based on the plea agreement, Tapp formally sentenced the former sheriff to 17 years to be served concurrently with his federal sentence.

Hodge was sentenced to federal prison for 15 and a half years in September 2011 in U.S. District Court in London on three separate crimes — conspiring to obstruct, delay and affect…commerce…by extortion, using controlled substances without proper prescriptions, and conspiring with a former sheriff’s office employee who did bookkeeping.

He serves his sentence for these federal convictions at the Elkton Federal Prison in Ohio.

Hodge will also remain on probation until his total restitution of $335,188 is paid in full.

After the hearing, neither Crabtree nor Williams wished to offer any statement.

However, Trimble was pleased the saga was over.

“Well, anytime you have a public official caught up in these (type of) matters, it’s a painful process,” he said. “It’s painful to the community…(and) painful all around to everyone.

“I’m thankful this thing’s over (with a) successful conclusion,” he added. “It’s good to have it over and behind us.”

He also explained that evidence existed for each of the 21 counts and that during the hearing, Tapp wanted “to make sure” that what the Commonwealth was alleging had a factual basis.

And the Commonwealth did. “We had a strong factual basis for each of the counts,” Trimble said.

“The public will not tolerate people who don’t live up to the standards of conduct (expected from a sitting sheriff),” he added. “Not go to the other side and be part of the problem.”

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