Owen official pleads guilty

OWENTON — Owen County Judge-Executive Billy O'Banion pleaded guilty Friday to four misdemeanor counts of official misconduct and resigned from the elected office he had held since 1999.

As part of the plea deal, O'Banion agreed that he will not be a candidate for public office in Kentucky for the next two years.

Before a courtroom audience of more than 60 people, O'Banion read a statement that said in part, "I apologize to this court and to the citizens of Owen County, Kentucky, for my conduct, which was clearly in violation of the law."

County Treasurer Gayla Lewis also resigned and entered an Alford plea to a misdemeanor count of official misconduct. The plea means she acknowledged that there was enough evidence for a jury to convict her even though she did not admit guilt.

O'Banion and Lewis had been scheduled to stand trial this month. A third official, Deputy Judge-Executive Renaee Gaines, pleaded guilty Dec. 23 to felony theft, complicity to felony theft, felony complicity to theft of services and two counts of official misconduct. She is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 23.

Gaines had agreed to testify against O'Banion and Lewis when they went on trial, said Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Crawford. The case arose from an audit of Owen County's finances performed by state Auditor Crit Luallen's office for the years 2007 and 2008.

O'Banion, 43, a Democrat, sent a letter of resignation to Gov. Steve Beshear Friday morning. Beshear has 30 days from Friday to appoint O'Banion's successor.

Owen County Attorney Charlie Carter said he anticipates that the governor will appoint a new judge-executive in a matter of days. "I don't imagine there will be much of a void for long," Carter said.

Other than the statement that he read to Owen Circuit Judge Stephen Bates and the courtroom audience, O'Banion had no other public comment. Steven Howe, O'Banion's attorney, said his client "is undecided on what he's going to do."

O'Banion was indicted in September on two felony counts of theft by unlawful taking of $300 or more and two misdemeanor counts of official misconduct.

O'Banion admitted in open court that he knowingly took $6,603.92 in "incentive training" money that he should not have received.

Early each year, judge-executives receive such money out of county funds for completing annual training. "But you can only get one check a year, a calendar year, and you can get no more than that," Crawford said.

But O'Banion collected a second check in 2006 and 2007. "It happened because he went to the county treasurer and the deputy judge-executive and said, 'I want another training incentive check,'" Crawford said. "And they cut him a check. And of course, he's the county judge, so he in effect took $6,600 that he had no authorization to take."

O'Banion has reimbursed the county for the $6,600.

O'Banion also admitted authorizing the writing-off or forgiving of bills owed to the county-owned ambulance service from various people, including a $632 bill for himself. O'Banion has since paid the ambulance bill in full.

Lewis was accused of assisting O'Banion with the thefts. Each county check must be signed by the judge-executive and the county treasurer. "The county treasurer, by law, should not be signing or authorizing any check that they believe or reasonably should believe is inappropriate," Crawford said.

In addition, Lewis, 32, wrote off a $125 ambulance bill that her father owed, Crawford said. "And there were a bunch of other ambulance bills they wrote off, too, for people that weren't indigent, that were capable of paying," Crawford said.

O'Banion's plea agreement amended the two felony counts to misdemeanor counts of official misconduct. Crawford had recommended 12 months in the county jail for each count, to be served concurrently for one sentence of 12 months.

But O'Banion will serve no jail time because Crawford recommended the sentence be "conditionally discharged" or probated for two years. The 12-month sentence on the official misconduct charge for Lewis was also probated.