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Martin enters guilty plea
Nov 22, 2005 12:00 am
November 18, 2005
Former Wilson County property assessor Jimmy Carter Martin pleaded guilty to charges of official misconduct and oppression Thursday for illegally changing the assessed value of land after losing his 2004 re-election bid.
Martin was charged in a two-count criminal information filed early Thursday and a short while later stood before Criminal Court Judge J.O. Bond, with whom the defendant worked closely during a nearly two-decade tenure as Wilson County Circuit Court Clerk.
In exchange for the guilty plea, Martin – who initially entered local politics as a teenage county commissioner in the late 1970s – was sentenced to a total of four years' probation and hit with $6,000 in fines. Under terms of the agreement, he is required to serve two years of supervised probation before being allowed to serve the remaining two years unsupervised.
The charges – both felonies – resulted from a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe into complaints that Martin appeared to lower the assessed value of property for those who supported his re-election campaign while increasing the assessed value of those he "perceived" to oppose him politically, Assistant District Attorney David Durham told Bond during Thursday's brief hearing.
Durham told the judge the evidence in the case indicated Martin "did go through the tax rolls and changed the value of several properties" in August 2004, his final month in office after losing his re-election effort to current property assessor Jimmy Locke.
Durham told the judge the TBI investigation showed Martin "unlawfully raised" the value of several pieces of property "before he left office on Sept. 1."
Speaking in a quiet voice and flanked by attorneys Jack Lowery and Frank Lannom, Martin faced Bond and offered a public apology for his most recent brush with the law, which followed a pair of highly publicized drunken driving arrests in recent years, only one of which resulted in a conviction.
"I would like to apologize to the people of Wilson County and my immediate family for the actions I took," Martin told the judge. "I did not mean to harm anyone."
Bond told the longtime political figure he was accepting his guilty plea "reluctantly."
"I know your family and this is something nobody likes to do," the judge said from the bench. "But this is your decision, right?"
"Yes sir," Martin answered softly.
Earlier when Bond asked him if he understood the consequences of the guilty plea, the defendant replied "It's in my best interest, your honor."
A review of assessment records earlier this year by The Lebanon Democrat indicated Martin raised the assessed value of property owned by several Locke supporters while at the same time decreasing the taxable value of land owned by those who supported his re-election effort. Among the newspaper's discoveries was Martin lowered the value of land owned by himself and several relatives, including his sister and a cousin who is a former Lebanon city councilor.
In the end, Martin's actions resulted in lower property tax bills for his supporters and higher property tax bills for those he believed opposed his re-election, prosecutors said.
Following the hearing, District Attorney General Tommy Thompson said the official misconduct charge related to evidence of Martin lowering land values for himself, relatives and apparent political supporters while the official oppression charge came from increasing the property values of those who did not support his campaign.
"The oppression charge basically relates to mistreating people through the power of his office," Thompson said. "The whole thing is just a sad situation, to see somebody that has done a lot of good get into something like this."
He said the TBI probe was spearheaded by an agent based out of the county with no links to local politics.
"It was a situation where it was a violation of the public trust," Thompson said. "It was a totally independent investigation by the TBI that was not influenced by anyone's enemies or anyone's friends."
He said had the case gone to trial "some of them (allegations) would have been easy to prove but some of them would have been very difficult."
"It would have been a long, protracted trial," Thompson said. "There would have had to have been a lot of expert witnesses called, and there would have been all kinds of technicalities involved from a prosecution standpoint."
Lowery said after the hearing Martin's plea was "conditional" and like Thompson, invoked the specter of a long, costly trial had the case proceeded to a jury.
"Jimmy Martin entered this best interest plea because he wanted to avoid the necessity of a long and protracted trial," Lowery said. "Rather than subject his family and friends to that he took this option."
The attorney said if Martin "fulfills his obligation under the terms of his probation, he will have the ability to expunge his record and will not carry forth a conviction."
"Under this particular type of plea, the judge more or less holds it in abeyance and if he complies with all conditions of his probation the plea will be withdrawn, the case will be dismissed and his record will be expunged," Lowery said.
Less clear, however, is Martin's future as a county employee. He was hired by County Clerk Jim Goodall as the county's business tax supervisor shortly after his DUI conviction last year. Lowery said he believes Thursday's guilty plea will not impact his client's job.
"I've encountered this question before with some federal employees and in my opinion, no, this doesn't mean he couldn't continue to hold the same job," Lowery said.
But Goodall, contacted after the hearing, said he was uncertain if Martin would remain a member of his staff.
"To tell you the truth I really don't know," Goodall said. "It's something I would just have to look at, look at all the legalities of it. It's just something I would really have to check on before I know what's going to happen."
Longtime Martin attorney and confidant Frank Lannom – who is related to the defendant – issued a written statement in response to a reporter's request late Thursday, noting the "personal and financial pressures" criminal charges such as those facing the one-time politician can bring.
In his statement, Lannom also echoed Lowery's comments the plea was in Martin's "best interest."
"The power of the district attorney to request an indictment against a citizen places enormous personal and financial pressures that few people can understand," Lannom said in the statement. "To concede to the state's demands is not an indication of guilt, as much as a recognition of the imbalance of power between the office of the district attorney general and an individual. To choose to avoid the hardship of a trial is many times the only rational choice and the one Mr. Martin chose. His choice is not an admission of guilt of the crimes alleged, but rather, as he stated, a decision that was in his best interest."
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at email@example.com.