FRANKFORT — A federal judge sentenced former Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley to seven years and three months in prison Tuesday for a kickback scheme that the judge said had hurt public confidence in government.
Conley, 50, admitted he took at least $130,000 in payments from a contractor who had bid on bridge projects in the rural Eastern Kentucky county.
"It feeds into the cynicism of the governed that they can't trust those who govern," U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove said of Conley's crime.
The 87-month term was the maximum Conley faced under advisory sentencing guidelines, which use factors including a person's criminal record and the amount of money involved in a crime to calculate a potential prison term. Federal judges don't have to impose a sentence within the guidelines, but they often do.
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There is no parole in the federal system, so Conley will have to serve at least 85 percent of his sentence.
Van Tatenhove also ordered Conley to pay $130,000 in restitution — $104,000 to the state and the rest to the county.
Van Tatenhove told Conley to report to prison on March 24.
Before the judge handed down the sentence, an emotional Conley pleaded for mercy as friends and family in the Frankfort courtroom wept.
"I made a bad choice in my life. I wasn't taught to make bad choices," Conley said. "I never meant to hurt nobody along the way."
One of Conley's attorneys, R. Michael Murphy, said after the hearing that Conley didn't want to comment. However, he said Conley was "obviously disappointed that he's looking at that much time."
U.S. Attorney Kerry B. Harvey applauded the sentence, saying Conley "deserves every day of it" for transforming his office into a criminal enterprise.
"We simply can't tolerate corrupt public officials in our district," Harvey said.
The sentencing closed a case that derailed the political career of a man who had won three terms as judge-executive as a Republican in a heavily Democratic county.
Conley gained widespread recognition for his work to help lead rebuilding efforts after a March 2012 tornado decimated West Liberty and parts of the county, causing millions in damage and killing six people.
As it turned out, Conley was extorting kickbacks from contractor Kenneth Gambill even as he became the face of the county's recovery from the massive tornado.
Gambill owned a company called PBTHNOJJ Construction, which stood for Praise Be the Holy Name of Jesus and Jehovah Construction Inc.
Conley arranged a scheme in which he opened bids on bridge projects in private and changed Gambill's bids to make sure Gambill won the contracts; then Conley took part of the payment for the jobs.
Conley took kickbacks on at least 14 bridge jobs from 2009 to 2013.
Gambill and his wife, Ruth, pleaded guilty and were sentenced to home detention.
The sentence range for Conley under the advisory guidelines was 70 months to 87 months.
The prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew T. Boone, argued during Tuesday's hearing that Conley should be sentenced to 11 years and three months because of his systematic, callous corruption that inflated the cost of some bridges.
Boone noted that as part of Conley's request for a lower sentence, Conley claimed he gave $65,000 to charities and people in need. The effect was that Conley used kickbacks to further a benevolent image, Boone said.
"I don't think giving bribe money to charity is anything to justify a lower sentence," Boone said.
Murphy, however, gave Van Tatenhove a very different picture — that of a churchgoing man who visits the local nursing home regularly, loves his county and was a respected, hard-working official.
"I know he's a good man who made a terrible mistake," Murphy said.
Murphy said he thought Conley got caught up in being the person others looked to for help in times of need, but at some point he didn't have the money to keep up that image.
"He let that lead him down the path of committing these criminal acts," Murphy said.
The defense asked for a sentence that would be less than the recommended minimum of 70 months. Van Tatenhove overruled that request and the one from the government for a much higher sentence.
Van Tatenhove acknowledged that Conley had done a great deal of good in public life, including leading Morgan County in the aftermath of the 2012 tornado. But the judge told Conley he also had damaged the community with his conduct.
"We need elected officials to not fall to the temptation" of engaging in corruption, Van Tatenhove said.