Armstrong: ‘I will be vindicated’

The start of Jamie Satterfield’s report on Rep. Joe Armstrong appearing in court Friday to enter a “not guilty” plea:

Even in shackles, state Rep. Joe Armstrong exuded the confidence and charisma that has netted him 14 terms in office.

Armstrong, 58, appeared Friday in U.S. District Court on charges he plotted to use his political power and his vote to line his pockets and keep the IRS out of them. Wearing a tailored suit, the Knoxville Democrat looked oblivious to the shackles and handcuffs — required for all defendants appearing in federal court in Knoxville for security reasons.

His wife, LeTonia, was not so stoic as she watched her husband, one of the most influential black state legislators in the nation, shuffle into the courtroom from the holding area where earlier he had been photographed and fingerprinted. Surrounded by two dozen relatives and two ministers, she teared up at the sight.

Armstrong, on the other hand, smiled and, when asked by U.S. Magistrate Judge Clifford Shirley to enter a plea in the three-count indictment, he stood ramrod straight. His voice boomed as if he were at a stump speech rather than an arraignment.

“I plead not guilty, Your Honor,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong is accused of arranging a secret deal to profit from a proposed tripling of the price of cigarette tax stamps under a bill he lobbied and voted for in 2007 and of then using his accountant’s firm to hide his $500,000 profits from the IRS.

Outside the courtroom after the hearing, Armstrong donned a hat and playfully bantered with the throngs of media awaiting his release. Flanked by his wife and defense attorney Gregory P. Isaacs, Armstrong declared his innocence once again.

(Note: Video of his brief news conference is HERE.)

“This has been going on for several years,” he said of the probe by the IRS Criminal Investigation Division and the FBI. “I believe in the justice system. I believe the truth will come out, and I believe I will be vindicated in this.”

A federal grand jury on Wednesday returned the indictment Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Atchley Jr. sought against Armstrong, charging him with conspiracy to defraud the federal government, tax evasion and lying to the IRS.

Shirley set an Aug. 25 trial before Chief U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan. Armstrong has until Aug. 6 to strike a plea deal. But it is likely a plea has already been offered to and rejected by Armstrong, an examination of court records shows.