Jury returns guilty verdict in Knox corruption trial

A trial that put a spotlight on corruption in the Knox County Trustee’s Office ended late Friday with a guilty verdict, reports the News Sentinel.

Jurors in Knox County Criminal Court spent more than seven hours deliberating before deeming Delbert Morgan, 58, guilty of felony theft. Judge Steve Sword set an Oct. 23 sentencing date.

The conviction carries a penalty range of eight to 12 years, but Morgan, who has no criminal history, qualifies for probation and perhaps judicial diversion. Diversion would keep the conviction off his record if he stays on the straight and narrow during a probationary period.

Defense attorney Jeff Daniel said a request for diversion “could be a possibility.”

Morgan was accused of ripping off taxpayers to the tune of $200,000 for collecting pay and benefits he did not earn. Prosecutors alleged he was a ghost employee put on the payroll by his college buddy, former Trustee Mike Lowe, as a favor.

…But Daniel framed the case not as thievery or corruption, but as a basic misunderstanding of the employment deal between Morgan and Lowe.

“The state is using all this evidence to create a false impression of this position he did not have,” Daniel said.

Morgan testified Lowe needed help valuing property deeded to the county when efforts to collect property taxes failed. Morgan already was a successful businessman with his own work to do. He agreed to help his buddy but, Morgan testified, on his own time.

Lowe said he’d set him up on a salary, and Lowe aide Sam Harb would handle his pay. Morgan signed blank time sheets and collected his paychecks.

Morgan testified he couldn’t remember how much time he spent working for Lowe but pegged the figure at no more than 15 hours per week. Harb admitted in testimony he’s the one who filled out the time sheets with all those bogus hours.

If anyone was a thief, Daniel argued, it was Harb.

“Sam Harb put the times in there,” Daniel said. “Why is Sam Harb not indicted?”

The way Daniel saw it, Morgan — albeit clueless about his salary or why his checks grew fatter over time — did the work Lowe said he would pay him to do.