Former Whitley Sheriff sentenced to 15 and a half years in prison
Former Whitley County Sheriff Lawrence Hodge will call a prison cell home for the foreseeable future.
U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove agreed to accept a binding plea agreement Wednesday morning, and sentenced Hodge to 186 months in prison, or 15.5 years behind bars.
He also ordered Hodge, 52, to forfeit $50,000 to the federal government and to pay $64,897 in restitution to the Whitley County Fiscal Court.
On May 12, Hodge pleaded guilty to a federal information charging him with extortion, drug trafficking and money laundering, all of which took place during his two terms in office.
An information is similar to an indictment, except it is an agreed set of charges that have been worked out between prosecutors and defendants in advance of an indictment and it is normally made in conjunction with a plea agreement.
"I see a lot of serious crimes in federal court all troubling. This one I found particularly disheartening," Van Tatenhove told Hodge during the hearing. "The person standing in front of me has fallen because of greed."
He noted the theft wasn't from an individual, but in a sense "from all of us."
Van Tatenhove said he understands the temptations that law enforcement officers face, but that the public has to rely on police officers to resist that temptation and not engage in illegal conduct.
"This is a long sentence, but it needs to be a long sentence due to the seriousness of the offense," he added. "In large measure, it is a just punishment though."
Once Hodge is release from prison, he will be placed on three years of supervised release.
Hodge has been incarcerated in the Grayson County Detention Center since he entered his guilty plea on May 12.
During the hearing, his attorney, Brent Caldwell, asked Van Tatenhove to request that the Bureau of Prisons place Hodge some place fairly close for the convenience of his family.
He also asked Van Tatenhove to consider a recommendation to place Hodge at a facility with a medical center.
Caldwell said Hodge has a bad back, two stints near his heart and high blood pressure among other health concerns.
He noted that Hodge has had chest pains since he has been incarcerated, but hasn't seen a heart doctor.
Van Tatenhove said he had no problem asking the Bureau of Prisons to have Hodge incarcerated in the closest facility to his home, which it typically does.
He declined to recommend that Hodge be placed at a facility with a medical center.
Van Tatenhove noted that the Bureau of Prisons does a medical assessment after someone is sentenced and determines whether they need to be placed at a medical facility.
Shackled in court
Hodge appeared at the U.S. District Courthouse in London wearing a green jail jumpsuit, handcuffs and leg irons.
He was led into the courtroom about 10:34 a.m. to a table where he was seated with his lawyer. He then turned towards family members and winked. When Hodge entered his guilty plea four months ago, no family members or friends accompanied him to court.
Hodge's brother, James Hodge, and his wife, Debbie Hodge, were both in court and accompanied by a third unidentified female Wednesday.
Van Tatenhove entered the courtroom about four minutes later, and the sentencing hearing lasted about 45 minutes.
Hodge mainly answered yes or no to the judge's questions, and when given an opportunity to address the court, he declined.
"At this time he desires to make no further statement," Caldwell told the judge.
After the hearing, before Hodge was led out of the courtroom, he looked towards his family and said in a soft voice, "I'll call you this evening."
Hodge pleaded guilty to three felony offenses: conspiracy to effect commerce by extortion under color of official right, conspiracy to distribute Oxycodone and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Hodge admitted that on at least three separate occasions between 2004 and 2007, he conspired with Williamsburg defense attorney Ron Reynolds to extort money from individuals that the Whitley County Sheriff's Department charged with felony drug trafficking offenses.
Specifically, Hodge referred criminal defendants to Reynolds for representation.
Reynolds, acting on behalf of Hodge, then encouraged these same clients to make forfeiture payments and/or cash donations to the Whitley County Sheriff's Department. The department received more than $55,000 through this scheme.
Reynolds pleaded guilty to extortion in mid-March, and received a 27-month prison sentence that he began serving last month.
Each of the individuals Reynolds represented expected and understood that they would face reduced charges and/or they wouldn't face any period of incarceration if they hired Reynolds based on the sheriff's recommendation, according to
Reynolds' plea deal. In each instance, the felony drug charges were reduced to misdemeanors with the sheriff's consent and approval. Reynolds has agreed to forfeit $199,500 to the government, which represents the net profit he made on the deal.
Hodge also admitted that he conspired with numerous drug dealers in Whitley County to distribute prescription pills, primarily Oxycodone and Hydrocodone, over a seven-year period. Hodge admitted that he was addicted to prescription pills throughout his tenure as Sheriff.
The plea agreement also says Hodge cultivated an atmosphere of tacit acceptance of drug dealing in Whitley County, as long as dealers cooperated with his demands.
Authorities say they could prove Hodge garnered about 1,500 Oxycodone 80mg pills through his illegal efforts.
On the final charge of money laundering, Hodge admitted that he conspired with a former bookkeeper, Vicky Paul, for the Sheriff's Department to embezzle near $65,000 in department funds.
According to court documents, money donated or forfeited to the department in connection with various court cases, was placed in the Whitley Sheriff Department's Drug and Alcohol Fund.
Paul was sentenced on federal charges for her role in the scheme earlier this year.
The money in this fund was supposed to be used to make controlled drug buys, pay informants, and to further other similar law enforcement objectives. Instead, Hodge told Paul to write him checks from the fund for one of these legitimate purposes, when in reality he was using the money to fund his own drug habit and for other personal expenditures. Paul was aware that Hodge was improperly taking the funds for his own personal use.
In order to cover up for the missing funds, Hodge permitted Paul to alter the Sheriff Department's accounting records and to falsify reports and other required paperwork.
Hodge served as Whitley County Sheriff's for eight years, but was plagued during his last year in office by accusations and rumors of wrongdoing. Until he pleaded guilty in May, he had always maintained, both in media interviews and in court, that he was innocent.
Hodge was soundly defeated by current Sheriff Colan Harrell in the May 2010 Republican Primary Election in an effort to win a third term.
Binding plea agreement
Hodge's plea deal was a binding plea agreement, which meant that Van Tatenhove couldn't vary from its terms if he accepted it. In federal court, normally defendants enter guilty pleas and prosecutors recommend that their sentence fall within a certain range. Federal judges then review pre-sentence investigations and normally set a sentence that falls within the recommended sentencing guidelines.
Both Dotson and Caldwell noted that a lot of work went into the plea agreement to come up with an appropriate resolution to the case, and asked the judge to accept the plea agreement.
Dotson noted this was a situation where the defendant not only circumvented his position and political office, but also used that office to commit crimes.
"These actions were ongoing over several years and were covered up. This is why we are looking at such a stiff sentence today," Dotson told Van Tatenhove during the hearing. "These are serious things that were done."
"These charges are serious. This sentence is serious," Caldwell added. "It works for the benefit of all involved."
If the binding plea agreement hadn't been in place and Hodge had plead guilty to the charges, he could have received up to 210 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.
Hodge was indicted by a Whitley County Grand Jury last November on 21 felony counts, including 18 for violations of public trust and three for tampering with physical evidence.
So far no trial date has been set, but Hodge is scheduled to appear on Oct. 10 in Whitley Circuit Court in connection with the charges.
After Van Tatenhove inquired about the status of the state charges Wednesday, Caldwell responded that he isn't representing Hodge in that case.
Hodge is still in jeopardy of receiving more prison time in that case, and perhaps substantially more time, Caldwell noted.
"I anticipate based on what I know this will be resolved without a trial," he added.
Kerry B. Harvey, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky; Paul J. Vido, Special Agent in Charge, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Elizabeth A. Fries, Special Agent in Charge, Federal Bureau of Investigation; and Christopher R. Pikelis, Special Agent in Charge, Internal Revenue Service; jointly made an announcement about Hodge's sentence in a press release Wednesday afternoon.
Agents with ATF, FBI and IRS conducted the joint investigation, including ATF Special Agent Todd Tremaine, who was one of the officers heading the investigation. Dotson represented the U.S. Attorney's Office.
In addition, the investigating agencies received assistance from the Kentucky State Police, the Williamsburg Police Department, the Office for the Auditor of Public Accounts for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and Whitley County Commonwealth's Attorney Allen Trimble's Office.
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