A former official from a small Floyd County town is trying to get her conviction overturned in a federal disability-fraud case in which her mother, the mayor, also went to prison.
Rita Christian Whicker, who was office manager at the public-housing authority in Martin, argues that her attorney did not properly represent her at her trial because of a conflict of interest.
However, the government said in a recent response that Whicker’s attorney did not have a conflict of interest and did an acceptable job presenting her defense.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor asked a judge to deny Whicker’s request for a new trial. A decision is pending.
Whicker, 44; her mother Thomasine Robinson, 71; and Ginger Michelle Halbert were accused of taking part in a scheme to make secret payroll payments to Halbert beginning in 2006 so she could also keep getting federal disability checks.
Robinson was mayor of Martin at the time. Halbert, a childhood friend of Whicker’s, ran errands, answered phones and did other work at City Hall.
The three agreed to have checks from the city and city-run community center issued to Halbert’s son — initially without his knowledge — which Halbert then cashed.
Halbert, 45, received more than $98,000 in a little over five years, while also getting $77,800 in disability checks, court records say.
A Social Security Administration investigation uncovered the fraud.
A jury convicted Robinson and Whicker of conspiracy, fraud, theft of benefits and identity theft. Halbert pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison.
In a separate case, Robinson was convicted of conspiring to intimidate voters in her November 2012 re-election bid, which she lost by three votes.
Robinson was sentenced to four years and nine months in prison and Whicker to three years and nine months. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld their convictions, but Whicker then went back to court in an effort to overturn the guilty verdict on other grounds.
Representing herself from the federal prison in Lexington, Whicker claimed in a motion that her defense suffered because her attorney in the original trial, W. Kent Varney, was in an “undisclosed partnership” with her mother’s attorney, Stephen Owens.
Varney deferred to Owens’ trial strategy, benefitting Whicker’s mother at her expense, Whicker claimed.
Whicker said that Varney advised her not to testify against her mother, and that both attorneys pressured her not to present testimony that could show she had less involvement in coming up with the scheme to pay Halbert under the table.
Whicker also argued Varney did not look into possible defenses.
However, Taylor, the prosecutor, said Whicker’s claims are wrong. Taylor said Owens and Varney affirmed that while they shared office space, they had separate practices. A judge asked about the arrangement early in the case, meaning Whicker was aware of it, so there was no secret partnership, Taylor said.
The prosecutor also argued Whicker had provided no evidence the two defense attorneys did anything to help Robinson at her expense, and no indication of a defense she could have offered that could have hurt her mother but helped her.
Varney said in an affidavit that his work for Whicker was focused on her best interest, not her mother’s, citing his cross-examination of a witness to show Whicker was not the one issuing checks.
Owens also denied any conflict of interest.
Whicker is scheduled to be released from prison in April 2018. Robinson is serving her sentence at a federal prison in Texas.