Former Whitley sheriff pleads guilty to extortion, drug, conspiracy charges

Whitley official stole money, used drugs

bestep@herald-leader.comMay 13, 2011 

LONDON — The former sheriff of Whitley County has admitted he was an illegal drug user and dirty cop much of his eight years in office.

Lawrence Hodge, who left office at the end of 2010, pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court to three felony charges — conspiracy to commit extortion, conspiracy to distribute pain pills and conspiracy to launder money.

Hodge signed off on a plea agreement that calls for him to serve 151/2 years in prison, forfeit $50,000 to the federal government and pay restitution of $64,897 to Whitley County for money he stole from the sheriff's office while he was supposed to be the chief local law-enforcement officer.

U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove scheduled Hodge, 51, to be sentenced in August.

However, Van Tatenhove ordered Hodge jailed immediately after the hearing in federal court in London, citing a federal law that required him to do so based on the facts of Hodge's case.

Marshals had Hodge empty his pockets in the courtroom and take off his wristwatch and belt, then took him to jail.

The extortion charge against Hodge related to a scheme to shake down drug dealers.

Hodge admitted encouraging accused drug dealers to hire a particular Williamsburg attorney, Ron Reynolds, with the understanding that if they did, they would get lenient treatment, according to court documents.

Reynolds kicked back part of his fees to Hodge, who then went along with having the charges reduced, according his plea agreement.

In three cases outlined in a court document, Reynolds charged the drug dealers a total of $257,000. Hodge got at least $50,000 of that, plus another $50,000 in "donations" and payments to the sheriff's office that Reynolds milked from the drug dealers.

Reynolds pleaded guilty in March. He faced up to 20 years in prison.

Reynolds also agreed to pay the government $199,500, representing the amount of money he got from the illegal activity.

Hodge took office in 2003. That same year, he began using illegal drugs and continued doing so throughout his term, he acknowledged Thursday.

Hodge admitted getting pain pills from numerous drug traffickers in the county and then looking the other way on their illegal sales.

"Specifically, the defendant, in his position as sheriff of Whitley County, failed to investigate, arrest, or institute criminal proceedings against these drug traffickers in exchange for these traffickers providing him illegal drugs for his personal use," Hodge's plea agreement said.

In one case, Hodge described in court how he went to a drug dealer, told the man he knew about his activities, and demanded pills.

"I knew what he was doing, and he give me pills," said Hodge, who was a barber before being elected sheriff.

Hodge told Van Tatenhove that he takes pain pills for a bulging disc, but he said he had never been treated for drug addiction.

On the third charge, Hodge admitted stealing $64,897 from his office during the time he was sheriff — some of it from a fund that was supposed to be used to make undercover drug buys.

Hodge conspired with the former clerk in his office to embezzle the money, his plea agreement said.

The clerk falsified documents to cover the thefts, according to court documents.

Hodge's plea deal did not identify the clerk, but in other court documents, Vicki Paul, who left Hodge's office in 2008, acknowledged taking part in helping Hodge siphon money from office accounts.

She has not been charged.

Hodge used some of the money he stole from the office to buy drugs, according to a court document.

Hodge worked out a deal to plead guilty at the same time he was charged.

That may have warded off even more charges.

In a document filed earlier in the case, one drug dealer said he made cash payments to Hodge, and a federal agent listed a raft of potential charges against the former sheriff — those he pleaded guilty to, but also possession of a gun by a drug user, use of a gun to further a drug crime and illegal possession of a gun stolen from the sheriff's office.

There also is a case pending against Hodge in state court.

A grand jury last year charged him with stealing about $350,000 from his office. Hodge has pleaded not guilty.

The federal agencies involved in investigating Hodge were the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the FBI; and the Internal Revenue Service.

They received assistance from the Kentucky State Police; the Williamsburg Police Department; state Auditor Crit Luallen's office; and the office of Commonwealth's Attorney Allen Trimble, according to a news release from U.S. Attorney Kerry B. Harvey.

Hodge ran for a third term as sheriff last year, but Colan Harrell, a retired state police detective, beat him in the Republican primary.

Hodge had been accused of stealing money from property-tax payments people made at the office. After Harrell won, but before he took office, he said people called to ask him if they should wait to pay their taxes until Hodge left.

Harrell said he and other employees have had to work to rebuild confidence in the sheriff's office since he took over in January.

Hodge had left the office in poor shape, with aging cruisers and not enough cash for Harrell to pay a $24 fee at the post office.

Harrell hopes his office will get the restitution Hodge is supposed to pay.

"I can see three cars in that, maybe a couple of shotguns," he said.

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