Appeals court upholds $250,000 fine against former Breathitt superintendent

bestep@herald-leader.comSeptember 24, 2013 

Breathitt County school Superintendent Arch Turner. Source: The Times-Voice

Federal appeals judges have upheld a $250,000 fine against former Breathitt County Schools Superintendent Arch Turner.

Turner's attorney had argued that the fine was unreasonable and that U.S. District Judge Karen K. Caldwell did not follow the proper procedure in imposing the punishment when sentencing Turner last November in a vote-buying case.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Turner faced a prison sentence of 11/2 to 2 years and a fine ranging from $4,000 to $40,000. But those guidelines are advisory. Judges can vary from them for certain reasons.

Caldwell sentenced Turner to two years in prison and slapped him with a $250,000 fine, the maximum allowed under the law.

Caldwell explained in court that Turner had "fearlessly and cynically" abused his position of authority and trust in leading a scheme to buy votes in the May 2010 primary, which harmed the community.

Turner's control of jobs in the poor county played into the scheme. One participant tearfully said in court that he went along in order to secure his daughter-in-law's job in the school system.

According to court records, Turner arranged meetings to discuss the plan, passed out money to buy votes, threatened people, lied to an FBI agent investigating the election, and tried to get others to lie to the FBI or a federal grand jury.

Caldwell said an "especially punitive fine" was warranted to punish him and deter others.

She also said Turner had earned a high salary — about $150,000 a year — and a comfortable retirement, so he could afford to pay the fine.

Turner did not appeal his prison sentence, but he asked the federal appeals panel to overturn the fine.

His attorney, Brent L. Caldwell, argued that Judge Caldwell failed to provide specific reasons for imposing a fine above the guideline range and had improperly considered Turner's socio-economic status in deciding on the fine.

The appeals court, however, ruled Friday that Caldwell sufficiently explained her decision and did not improperly consider Turner's wealth and status in setting the fine.

About a dozen people, including a member of the school board, were convicted in the vote-buying case related to the 2010 election.

The school district has seen a good deal of turmoil since Turner resigned in May 2012.

The school board named Melanie Stevens as interim superintendent, but it then suspended her in October 2012.

Stevens later claimed in a federal lawsuit that board members improperly suspended her because she reported concerns about illegal or unethical activity to state and federal officials.

Two other administrators, Charles David Napier and Steve Banks, claimed in lawsuits that Turner and board members retaliated against them for cooperating in the FBI investigation.

And in December, the state school board voted to take over operation of the beleaguered district after audits found financial improprieties and disarray in management.

Among other things, state Auditor Adam Edelen's office found that Turner canceled 10 school days during the 2011-12 year but paid teachers a total of $526,350 for the missed days; that he had the school board make a direct contribution to his pension without having it counted as a taxable benefit; and that the district bought scores of tickets and paid for hotel rooms so Turner and others could attend the boys' state basketball tournament, even though Breathitt County was not in it.

A follow-up audit ordered by state education Commissioner Terry Holliday found that management of the district was ineffective; that poor communication and spotty teacher training were hindering efforts to boost student achievement; that the school board didn't have a clear picture of the district's finances; and that the district had falsified its dropout rate.

Breathitt County was the first district the state board had voted to take over since 1997.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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