Ex-Kentucky County Official Gets 7 Years in Prison for Tornado Repair Kickbacks

By BRUCE SCHREINER | January 29, 2015

The former top official of a tornado-ravaged Kentucky county was sentenced to seven-plus years in prison Tuesday for raking in more than $100,000 in a kickback scheme that continued even as his constituents struggled to rebuild from the deadly storm.

As former Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley tearfully begged for mercy at his sentencing, reconstruction work continued in his devastated Appalachian county – nearly three years after the tornado.

Downtown West Liberty, the county seat, took a direct hit March 2, 2012, as part of an outbreak of tornadoes that killed 25 people statewide. In Morgan County, six people were killed. Churches, a bank and apartments are being rebuilt. Empty gaps stand in the tiny downtown.

Conley, 50, took the lead in the reconstruction. But by that time, the Republican already was caught up in a long-running scheme of soliciting and accepting illegal kickbacks from a bridge contractor, federal prosecutors said.

Conley’s successor as the county’s judge-executive, Stanley Franklin, said his actions left scars among residents in the county about 60 miles east of Lexington.

“I think they’re hurt more than anything else,” Franklin said Tuesday in a phone interview. “There was a lot of confidence in Mr. Conley.”

Conley made an emotional appeal for leniency from U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove.

“Judge, I beg for mercy,” Conley said as he wiped away tears, his voice choking with emotion. “I made a mistake.”

Conley said he was taught to focus on God, family and country, but “somewhere along the way I made some bad choices.” He apologized to his family – sobbing from the gallery – and community. He talked about the stresses of leading his storm-stricken county and said he still tries to give back by visiting nursing home residents.

“I don’t want to pay with my life,” he said.

Conley’s attorney, in seeking a more lenient sentence, had said that Conley funneled tens of thousands of dollars from the scheme to help those in need in his county.

But prosecutors said Conley’s actions were the result of greed.

“He transformed his high public office into a criminal enterprise designed to line his pockets, at the expense of the citizens who elected him,” U.S. Attorney Kerry B. Harvey said in a statement. “The sentence imposed is an appropriate punishment for a man who so thoroughly abused the public trust, at a time when his community most needed honest leadership.”

Before entering his sentence, Van Tatenhove said Conley’s crime “feeds into the cynicism” toward government.

“You now owe society a debt,” the judge said.

The judge sentenced Conley to seven years and three months in prison for soliciting and accepting the kickbacks from a bridge contractor. That was at the top of federal sentencing guidelines.

Prosecutors had urged a harsher sentence of 11 years and four months.

Under federal law, Conley will serve at least 85 percent of his prison sentence.

Conley also was ordered to pay $130,000 in restitution – $104,000 to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and $26,000 to Morgan County.

Conley pleaded guilty to fraud last August. He admitted that from 2009 to 2013, he rigged the county’s bidding process to ensure that contracts for certain local bridges were awarded to PBTHNOJJ Construction, a Salyersville, Kentucky, bridge contractor owned by Kenneth and Ruth Gambill.

Conley opened bids in private and changed Gambill’s bid to ensure he got the contracts, according to court records. Conley admitted that he directed Kenneth Gambill to deliver kickbacks to him.

Court records indicated he received at least $130,000 in kickbacks on at least 14 bridge jobs.

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