Grand jury indicts Whitley Sheriff Lawrence Hodge on 21 felonies

Grand jury cites theft of money, guns

bestep@herald-leader.comNovember 9, 2010 

Whitley County Sheriff Lawrence Hodge has stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money during his two terms in office, a local grand jury has charged.

The grand jury indicted Hodge on Monday on 18 charges of abuse of public trust and three counts of tampering with physical evidence — all felonies.

Most of the charges allege Hodge took money from accounts at his office, though some allege that he sold or gave away guns that had been seized in investigations.

The charges of tampering with evidence allege that he failed to properly safeguard guns, knives or drugs that had been seized.

Hodge began taking money his first year in office, in 2003, the grand jury charged.

"It started pretty quick, based upon what the grand jury saw," Commonwealth's Attorney Allen Trimble said Monday.

There was at least one charge alleging theft for every year Hodge has been in office.

The amount of money involved in the alleged thefts totaled about $350,000, Trimble said.

The most serious charges in the indictment are Class C felonies, punishable by five to 10 years in prison.

Hodge might be facing other problems as well. He also is under federal investigation, according to a report issued by the grand jury that indicted him.

Federal authorities searched Hodge's office Monday, Trimble said.

Trimble said the local grand jury focused its work on issues apart from those under investigation by federal authorities.

Hodge lost his bid for a third term in the May Republican primary to Colan Harrell, a retired state police detective scheduled to take over the office in January.

Hodge may stay in office while under indictment. Attempts to reach him Monday afternoon were not successful.

Circuit Judge Paul Braden appointed the special Whitley County grand jury in June to investigate Hodge because of numerous complaints from citizens and local newspaper articles that pointed out problems, according to a report the panel issued.

Among other things, the Corbin Times-Tribune reported on apparent irregularities in how Hodge's office accounted for guns that officers had seized.

In December, Hodge reported that his office in the Whitley County Courthouse had been burglarized shortly before he was supposed to release records about the gun inventory.

Hodge claimed that as a result he could not turn over the records.

There was a good deal of skepticism locally about the alleged burglary.

One count of the indictment said Hodge "converted to his own use" 12 guns his office had seized.

As for the charges related to stolen money, the grand jury said Hodge wrote nearly $100,000 in checks to himself from an account in his office, saying the money was for undercover drug buys.

However, Hodge did not account for the money and took out much of that money at a time when he and deputies were not presenting cases to grand juries for possible indictments, the special grand jury said.

"He was never presenting any cases," Trimble said. "Come on, something's wrong somewhere."

Aside from the alleged thefts, Hodge did a poor job tackling the drug problem in a county where, like many others, it is rampant, the grand jury said in its report.

Hodge's office sometimes went a year without sending any seized drugs to a crime laboratory to be analyzed, and failed to properly preserve evidence seized in cases, the grand jury said.

There also was a problem with deputies persistently failing to show up for court appearances, which hampered prosecutions, the grand jury said.

In addition to taking money from the drug and alcohol account, Hodge allegedly stole from tax collections.

Sheriffs in Kentucky provide law enforcement but also collect property taxes and other fees.

They keep a percentage to run their offices but forward the bulk of the money to a variety of local agencies such as schools, libraries and health departments.

If they perform poorly, those other agencies can be shortchanged.

State Auditor Crit Luallen's office has identified a number of financial and accounting problems in Hodge's office in recent years, including poor bookkeeping and missing money.

Audits showed Hodge's office filed an unusually large number of "supplemental reports" with the state.

Those reports are required when a sheriff adjusts someone's tax bill, such as by waiving a penalty for a late payment.

Such reports "can be used to conceal the theft of tax payments to the sheriff's office," one audit of Hodge's office said.

The grand jury said those state audits were of particular interest in its investigation.

The audits for 2005, 2006 and 2007 showed "a shocking abuse of the tax collecting process and a criminal failure to account for tax receipts," the grand jury said.

The grand jury noted that the charges against Hodge were not a general indictment of every employee in the office. Many are dedicated and trustworthy, and helped in the investigation, the panel said.

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