Legislators say they want to make sure their own kind get more than a slap on the wrist if they’re caught breaking the law and abusing the public trust.
The legislation comes almost a year after Richard Baumgartner, a former criminal court judge in Knoxville, pleaded guilty to official misconduct for illegally using prescription painkillers he acquired from drug offenders who’d appeared in his court. Baumgartner was granted diversion, which allowed him to avoid serving jail time.
“I think that people who hold public office ought to be held to a higher standard,” said Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, who is sponsoring the bill.
Yager told TNReport the Baumgartner scandal “was certainly one of several” involving East Tennessee public officials that prompted him to sponsor the legislation — although he declined to get specific.
“That’s not to say that 99 percent of the state and local officials in this state aren’t hardworking, conscientious and honest, but it’s that less than one percent who commit malfeasance in their office give everybody else a bad name,” Yager said.
The measure would add to the list of crimes not eligible for diversion “any offense committed by any elected or appointed person in the executive, legislative or judicial branch of the state or any political division of the state, which offense was committed in the person’s official capacity or involved the duties of the person’s office.”
Even though nobody voted against the bill, not everybody was for it. Three senators abstained from voting on SB2566: Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, and Joe Haynes, D-Nashville.
“If you’re going to take off diversion for that crime, we need to consider a lot of other crimes,” Haynes told reporters after speaking out against the bill on the Senate floor. “Not that people who do that shouldn’t be punished. Sure they should. But diversion shouldn’t be removed for that crime any more than it should be removed… for embezzlers or any other serious crime.”
Baumgartner pleaded guilty to one felony count of official misconduct and was granted two years of parole instead of a prison sentence for the conviction. Defense lawyers in numerous cases over which Baumgartner presided either have or are considering asking for retrials because Judge Baumgartner was likely impaired on the bench during court proceedings.
If he avoids further brushes with the law, Baumgartner’s record will be wiped clean after two years due to the current diversion law.
In Tennessee, diversion is applicable in certain cases involving a first-time offender. The second chance is granted in cases where the defendant has never been granted pretrial or judicial diversion, has not been convicted for a felony, or a Class A or B misdemeanor. Diversion is available if the crime at hand is not a Class A or B felony, DUI, misdemeanor sex offense or conspiracy, attempt, or solicitation of certain sex offenses.
The companion House measure, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, has yet to move in a House Judiciary subcommittee this year, but is scheduled for a hearing Thursday.
Mark Engler contributed to this report.