A federal judge threw the old monkey wrench into former County Attorney Jim Cope’s plea bargain on insider trading charges when she found he just makes too much money to get off with a $55,000 fine.
In a recent sentencing hearing for Cope, U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger said she was troubled by the initial plea agreement to criminal charges between Cope and the U.S. Attorney’s Office and decided he should pay a $200,000 fine for ill-gotten gains as a board member of Pinnacle Financial Partners.
Nashville attorney Aubrey Harwell, who is representing Cope, successfully pushed off completion of the hearing until the last week of November to see how the Securities and Exchange Commission is planning to come down on Cope in a separate civil complaint. Courtroom discussion between Trauger and Harwell revealed the SEC would fine him $55,000.
Still, the odds are Cope will pay quite a bit more than the original fine, which would be tantamount to paying back the $56,000 he pleaded guilty to netting on insider trading as Pinnacle prepared to acquire Nashville-based Avenue bank in early 2016.
Trauger said in court Cope’s financials show a net worth of $12 million and monthly income of $37,000, not counting former income from legal work. Cope’s law license is suspended as a result of the guilty plea, and he’s taking a leave of absence from his firm, which continues to handle county government legal work.
As part of the initial plea agreement, which remains on hold until sentencing is final, Cope will also be on probation for two years and under house arrest the first nine months. Whether Judge Trauger wants to change that is uncertain; she didn’t address it in the sentencing hearing.
Meanwhile, people across Rutherford County are just a tad bit upset about the County Commission continuing to use the firm of Cope, Hudson, Reed and McCreary for government work, with Josh McCreary now serving as county attorney.
Cope, the county attorney for 33 years, apparently did a good job of negotiating an extension of his firm’s county contract in 2014, inserting a sentence making McCreary the county attorney in case he had to vacate the position. More than likely, he was thinking about retiring in a couple of years, not pleading guilty to insider trading and staring at possible disbarment.
A review of the county’s contract with the Cope firm doesn’t turn up any provision for cancellation in case of malfeasance, a sure sign the county should have hired an attorney to negotiate the contract with the county attorney. Even a rookie attorney would have put a clause in there to deal with wrongdoing.
Regardless of the omission, if the County Commission had any guts, at the very least it would take a vote on whether to retain Cope’s firm. He might not be drawing any pay right now, since he’s on suspension (the Board of Professional Responsibility hasn’t held a hearing on his law license yet), but if he does return to the profession he could reap the reward of county dollars. He’s already in line for a county retirement, as part of the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System, since his conviction wasn’t connected to work as the county attorney.
How well he does on the rest will depend on the job Aubrey Harwell does bailing him out of trouble. And though Harwell is quite adept, smoothing things over with this judge will take some serious lawyering.
In a case likely to go down as one of the weirdest in Tennessee history, Sheriff Robert Arnold is not only in jail but suspended from office temporarily while an ouster case against him is adjudicated.
Thanks to the ouster lawsuit filed by a group of Rutherford residents (without the help of the county attorney or district attorney general, though by law they’re required to provide assistance), Arnold is no longer working or drawing a check on his $125,000 annual salary.
It’s a steep descent from the position as Rutherford’s top law enforcement officer to inmate in a Kentucky county jail, a cell Arnold described as a “dungeon.”
But this is what happens when you’re charged with 14 felony counts in connection with an illicit scheme to profit from the sale of e-cigarettes to jail inmates, then allegedly tell numerous tall tales about your involvement before getting arrested and having your bond revoked for roughing up your wife in a drunken and drugged stupor, then being suspended from office as part of an ouster lawsuit after fabricating even more stories.
Arnold may be a “tragic” figure in the classical sense of the word because he fell from grace owing to a character flaw. Some might say he has more than one.
But because of his arrogance, forgiveness will be hard to find among most Rutherford County people who are more than a little pissed off that he pulled these shenanigans and then thumbed his nose at the world.
Sure, he still holds an outside shot at being acquitted of the federal criminal charges in a Feb. 7 trial. But Arnold’s biggest problem is himself. He’s a terrible witness.
In a hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Kevin Sharp to review the revocation of his bond and subsequent jailing, a legal question arose early on about a point that went to Arnold’s credibility. Just a couple of hours into the hearing, Sharp responded, “I’ve got a pretty good idea about his credibility.”
Clearly, the judge had made up his mind about Arnold’s penchant for lying long before the hearing concluded. In fact, in the order upholding Arnold’s revocation and jailing, Sharp wrote, “The breadth of Defendant’s prevarication while on the stand is difficult to capture in written words. Time and again he was confronted with inculpating evidence but, true to form, he offered excuses or explanations that were incredible and oftentimes inconsistent with his other testimony,” Sharp wrote. “Even his plea to the Court to release him and his assertion through tears, real or manufactured, that he would comply with whatever conditions were imposed was not believable.”
Prevarication means deviation from the truth. Asked on the witness stand if he often embellishes things, Arnold said he stretches the truth even when talking to voters on the campaign trail and when going before the County Commission to ask for funds.
So if he is acquitted and somehow returned to his post, he’s going to have a hard time explaining himself to anyone who cares to pay attention.
Arnold also testified he’s been on anti-depressant medication for more than a year and a half and started taking sleeping pills about six to eight months ago. Nothing like an upper in the morning and a downer in the evening. What he really needs, though, is to walk the road to Damascus, where he might see the light. Jail isn’t doing the job.
Cronies Cast Out
Sheriff’s Office Chief Administrative Deputy Joe Russell, one of the co-defendants with Arnold in his federal corruption case, skated along counting money and cashing JailCigs checks for e-cigarette sales while Arnold was still in control. He even copped some paid time off while on suspension.
Just a couple of days after Arnold was temporarily suspended in the ouster case, Russell was fired. Chief Deputy Randy Garrett did the honors after Rutherford County Commissioner Robert Stevens sent him a letter asking why Russell still has a job while facing a federal indictment.
The axing was rather unceremonious, and on top of it, Russell will have to start paying his federal court-appointed attorney $1,000 a month starting in December until Judge Sharp says otherwise. Loyal readers might remember Russell’s wife is Nicole Lester Russell, who was fired from her post as Rutherford County administrator of elections in 2014.
The family went from drawing her salary of about $92,000 plus his of $72,000 down to much less, another steep fall for a couple sitting pretty just two to three years ago.
At this point, they could use a miracle, too.
Also stumbling in the netherworld are indicted Maj. Terry McBurney for allegedly lying about his U.S. citizenship and Sgt. Todd Hammond, who submitted his resignation to the sheriff’s office recently.
McBurney has been among Arnold’s closest friends after being fired from the office in 2008 and rehired by Arnold after the 2010 election. Early in Arnold’s detention in the Kentucky jail, McBurney told him he would bring him documents every day to sign, a weak attempt to make it look like Arnold was still running the department while being detained. This was all recorded on jail phones.
But to no avail. The Davidson County chancellor hearing the ouster case could see right through the old façade. Chancellor Bill Young even surmised that Arnold is guilty of the indictments against him, a statement that forced Arnold’s attorney to point out no proof had been shown on the matter.
A few days after McBurney’s indictment, Hammond tendered his resignation as well, taking the high road while McBurney filed for medical leave with the county. Hammond was the sergeant called to Arnold’s home to “mess with Megan” after the sheriff and his wife had a struggle at the bedroom door when Arnold was drunk and drugged. Hammond told TBI investigators he saw no signs of a domestic disturbance. But he didn’t file a report, either, which is a form of concealing what happened.
Concealment, hiding the truth and outright lying: Those are getting to be pretty common in this case. But as Sir Walter Scott said: “What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”