Morgan County judge-executive pleads guilty to accepting kickbacks on bridge projects

bestep@herald-leader.comAugust 26, 2014 

The judge-executive of Morgan County admitted Tuesday that he took more than $120,000 in kickbacks to rig bids on local construction projects, a scheme that defrauded citizens of their right to his honest services.

Judge-Executive Tim Conley, 49, pleaded guilty to one federal charge of mail fraud.

When U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove asked Conley to explain how he was guilty, Conley rambled a bit, referring to having been a big fundraiser and not separating personal funds from other money.

Conley then talked of the devastating March 2012 tornado that killed several residents and ravaged the county seat, West Liberty, and of how he loves the county, getting so choked up he could barely speak.

After Van Tatenhove said he could not accept the plea deal if Conley didn't acknowledge he'd broken the law, the three-term judge-executive gave a direct answer.

"I admit that I've accepted it wrongfully," Conley said of kickback money.

Conley's attorney, Robert Michael Murphy, said after the hearing that Conley's extended answer was referring to the fact that he gave a lot of the money at issue in the case to people in need, including victims of the tornado.

That could become part of an argument for a lesser sentence for Conley.

The maximum sentence on the allegation Conley admitted to would be 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

However, the federal courts use a point system to come up with an advisory sentence range, adding points based on the amount of money involved in a crime, for instance, while subtracting points if a person pleads guilty, which avoids the cost of a trial.

The sentence range under Conley's plea deal is 5 years and 10 months to 7 years and 3 months. The guidelines will not bind Van Tatenhove when he sentences Conley on Dec. 2, however. The judge could go above that range based on factors he must consider.

Conley reserved the right to appeal his sentence if Van Tatenhove imposes a term of more than 7 years and 3 months.

Van Tatenhove said in court that he also could order Conley to pay restitution, though the amount would not be determined until his sentencing. Prosecutors are seeking to make Conley forfeit money that he and a construction-company owner got as a result of the scheme.

Murphy said Conley intends to serve the remainder of his elected term, which runs through the end of the year, in order to help his successor with the transition.

"He still truly does love his community," Murphy said.

However, Conley intends to withdraw from the general election and ask that his name be removed from the ballot, Murphy said.

Conley was unopposed in May for the Republican nomination for a fourth term as judge-executive. Stanley Franklin, who works part-time at a local bank, is the nominee for the Democrats, who vastly outnumber Republicans in the county.

John David Lewis, the county GOP chairman, said the local party's leaders will look into appointing a Republican to run in Conley's place. A replacement nominee could be hard to find and wouldn't have much time to campaign, Lewis said.

Conley was charged in December with rigging bids between early 2009 and August 2013 for a company called PBTHNOJJ Construction, which stands for Praise Be the Holy Name of Jesus and Jehovah Construction Inc.

The company received $1.1 million worth of work for building bridges and doing other work, including cleaning up debris from the March 2012 tornado, according to court records.

Conley admitted that in a number of cases, he secretly opened bids from Kenneth Lee Gambill, the owner of the company, and lowered them so Gambill would win the bid.

Gambill would kick back part of the money from the jobs to Conley.

The charge Conley pleaded guilty to involved three bridges. Gambill's company and one other firm bid on the projects.

Conley opened the bids and adjusted Gambill's to make them "slightly lower" than the competitor, according to the plea deal, then chose Gambill's company for the jobs.

Gambill paid Conley a total of $45,000 in bribes, according to the plea agreement.

Conley sent a letter to the state Transportation Cabinet requesting payment on the three bridge projects. That was what resulted in the mail fraud charge he admitted to Tuesday.

That was just one example. The total amount of kickback money Conley took in just over four years was more than $120,000, according to his plea deal.

U.S. Attorney Kerry B. Harvey said the people of Morgan County deserved better than repeated acts of betrayal by the person they trusted to head county government.

"This was not a one-time lapse in judgment. Mr. Conley essentially transformed the public office he held to a criminal enterprise in order to serve his own purposes," Harvey said.

Harvey said Conley's conviction was in some ways a sad day for the county, but also a day of hope because Morgan County residents can look forward to restoring integrity to the judge-executive's office.

Gambill and his wife, Ruth Gambill, pleaded guilty earlier to a charge that they conspired with Conley and could have been called as witnesses against him. They have not been sentenced.

West Liberty Mayor Mark Walter said Conley deserves great credit for his work to help the county recover from the 2012 tornado, including pushing for federal aid.

"He was very instrumental in the rebuilding of West Liberty and Morgan County," Walter said. "He's been a leader of the community."

Walter said Conley's legal troubles should not be seen as a black eye for the county.

Lewis said the charges against Conley and his guilty plea "blows everybody's mind up here."

"Everybody liked Tim," and many would still vote for him, Lewis said.

Magistrate Denzil Potter, who has served on the fiscal court with Conley since both won election in 2002, agreed Conley has had a lot of support.

But many people no longer trust Conley and don't want him to remain in office as a convicted felon, Potter said.

"He's a No. 1 scammer. Most people I talk to are like me — they want to get him out of there," Potter said.

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

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