Prosecutor wants more prison time for Morgan County judge-executive in corruption case

Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley in his office in West Liberty on Feb. 20, 2013. March 2nd was the one-year anniversary of the killer tornado that destroyed much of downtown West Liberty and many houses across Morgan County.
Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley in his office in West Liberty on Feb. 20, 2013. March 2nd was the one-year anniversary of the killer tornado that destroyed much of downtown West Liberty and many houses across Morgan County. Herald-Leader

A federal prosecutor is seeking a much longer prison sentence for Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley than the term called for under advisory sentencing guidelines.

A sentence in the recommended range would not be sufficient to punish Conley's systematic abuse of public office to line his pockets, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew T. Boone said in a motion.

Conley's conduct was especially egregious for a number of reasons, including his demands for secret payments from a contractor after a March 2012 tornado killed six people in the county and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage, according to the motion.

"Even as he claimed to lead his constituents' recovery from this disaster, he was stealing from them," Boone wrote. "He took at least $90,000 in kickbacks during a time when many of his constituents were rebuilding their lives from rubble.

"These actions reflect a level of callousness and deception that can destroy public confidence in government," Boone wrote.

Conley, 50, pleaded guilty to mail fraud in a case in which he received at least $130,000 in kickbacks from a contractor between 2009 and 2013, according to court records.

Federal sentencing guidelines take a variety of factors into account in coming up with a potential sentence. The factors include a defendant's criminal history and the amount of money involved in a crime.

However, federal judges are not bound by the sentence calculated under the guidelines.

The top sentence for Conley under the advisory guidelines would be seven years and three months. Conley agreed not to appeal any sentence of that length or less.

However, Boone's motion urged a sentence for Conley of 11 years and four months.

U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove is scheduled to sentence Conley on Jan. 6, although defense attorneys filed a motion Tuesday seeking to delay the sentencing so they would have more time to respond to the government's motion.

Lexington attorney R. Michael Murphy, part of Conley's defense team, said he and other attorneys were surprised by the government's request for a sentence above the top of the guideline range, and they will vigorously oppose the motion.

"I don't think it's warranted at all," Murphy said of the prosecution's request.

In fact, Murphy said, a sentence less than the guideline minimum — five years and 10 months — would be more appropriate.

Boone said a higher sentence is justified because Conley's conduct was worse than that of public officials in many government kickback schemes.

Rather than a contractor offering to bribe an official, the reverse was true in Conley's case. He thought up the scheme and demanded payoffs from a pliant contractor, Boone said.

That contractor, Kenneth Gambill, built bridges in Morgan County. He and his wife, Ruth, pleaded guilty in the case.

In addition, Conley took kickbacks on at least 14 bridge projects, and his demands escalated over time. At first, his payoff was about $5,000 for each bridge, but he later demanded $15,000 per bridge, siphoning off all of Gambill's profit, Boone said in the motion.

Conley carried out the scheme by opening bids in private and changing Gambill's bid to make sure he got contracts, according to court records.

For instance, Conley opened three bids in May 2013 and changed all of them to make Gambill the low bidder, Boone's motion said.

On one bridge, Gambill had bid $38,900 and a competitor had bid $35,000. Conley changed Gambill's bid to $34,900 to undercut the competitor by $100, according to the motion.

On another, Gambill had bid $41,900 and the competitor had bid $70,000. Conley upped Gambill's bid to $61,900, making more money available for Conley's kickback, Boone said.

The prosecutor said also it appears that Conley and those around him seem unwilling to accept that what he did was fundamentally wrong.

When he pleaded guilty in August, Conley seemed to offer excuses to justify his crime, saying he took the money to give it to people in need.

Soon after the plea, Conley's brother submitted an article to the local newspaper in which he lauded Conley for helping people in need.

Conley also refused to resign as judge-executive even after admitting that he had abused the office. His name was on the November ballot for re-election, and his wife and mother took part in an advertisement urging people to vote for Conley, according to Boone's motion.

Conley, a Republican, didn't win a fourth term, but he has continued to collect his annual salary of about $82,000 since pleading guilty.

"Conley systematically corrupted his office and, when caught, flouted the seriousness of his offense by remaining in office and running for re-election," Boone wrote.

Morgan County Clerk Randy Williams said the man who defeated Conley in November, Stanley Franklin, and other local officeholders were scheduled to be sworn in at 5 p.m. Tuesday.

However, state law indicates that the term for county officeholders begins Monday, according to Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes' office.

Kenneth and Ruth Gambill were sentenced to home detention, and they were jointly liable with Conley for a $130,000 judgment.