In a surprise move, Nicholas County Sheriff Leonard "Dick" Garrett accepted a plea agreement and resigned from office Tuesday, just as testimony began this week in his trial in Nicholas Circuit Court on charges of theft and abuse of public trust.
Garrett, 48, who had been sheriff since 2003, was not immediately available for comment. Under the agreement, Garrett pleaded guilty to theft by unlawful taking over $300 and an amended charge of abuse of public trust under $10,000.
The recommended sentence is 10 years in prison, but Garrett probably will not serve time. Instead, the recommended sentence will be "diverted" for five years, during which time Garrett must meet certain conditions, including resignation from office, making restitution and not committing any other criminal offenses.
If he does not meet the requirements of the diversion, prosecutors could ask a judge to revoke it and sentence Garrett to the full 10 years. A judge also could extend the diversion period for longer than five years if Garrett does not meet conditions.
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Under the plea agreement, Garrett agrees not to run for any public office again, even after the five-year diversion period ends. At the end of the diversion period, the case would be dismissed, and Garrett would not be a convicted felon, said Gary Adkins, an assistant commonwealth's attorney who was working on the trial with Special Prosecutor Kathryn Hendrickson.
Garrett's desire to take a plea agreement surprised even the prosecution. Before Tuesday, "the sheriff was not wanting to do anything that would jeopardize his being sheriff," Adkins said.
"Apparently they saw the reaction of some of the jurors and saw the evidence that was coming out, and started having some second thoughts," Adkins said.
Defense attorney Raymond Bogucki declined to say why Garrett decided to take a plea. Once a client makes a decision "I live with it," Bogucki said. "I don't question why."
Garrett also agreed to pay $38,237.60 in restitution. If Benjamin Buckler Sr., a former deputy sheriff who faces similar charges, is convicted, prosecutors will try to get $6,311 of that amount from Buckler, Adkins said. If Buckler is acquitted, Garrett will be responsible for the full amount, Adkins said.
In the event that Garrett could provide documentation of money that was spent for appropriate purposes, the prosecution would reduce the restitution by that amount, according to the plea agreement.
Formal sentencing for Garrett is scheduled Nov. 3 in Carlisle before Special Judge Charles Mains.
At issue in the trial was a drug asset forfeiture account that contained $95,631.41 Garrett received from the federal government for his share of the work in bringing a local drug dealer to justice. The dealer, Gary Lee Barnett, was convicted in federal court in Lexington in 2007.
An indictment returned in October alleged that Garrett took $43,291.45 from the forfeiture account. Another count of abuse of public trust alleged that Garrett spent more than $10,000 for his personal use.
The money in that account was to be used for the purchase of vehicles, equipment and "specialized training expenses," but Hendrickson, the prosecutor, said during an opening statement at trial that Garrett had used the money "like a personal checking account."
The jury was seated Thursday, and Monday was the first day of testimony.
Garrett was to have been tried with Buckler, 38, a former deputy sheriff who is now a Carlisle police officer. Buckler was indicted in April on charges that he received more than $300 in federal asset forfeiture money stolen from the sheriff's department, and that he took or was complicit in taking more than $300 from the department's drug asset forfeiture account.
But on July 12, Mains ruled that Buckler should have a separate trial.
Garrett has agreed to "testify truthfully" in Buckler's trial, Adkins said. A date has not been scheduled for that trial.
Last year, Garrett came under criticism from State Auditor Crit Luallen in an audit of the sheriff's 2008 financial statement. The audit found that Garrett had $40,401 in disallowed expenditures from the drug forfeiture account.
Nicholas County Judge-Executive Kenny Lyons said Tuesday that he has not appointed an interim sheriff and probably won't do so until next week.
"I've called state police, and they're going to help patrol until I get one appointed," Lyons said.