KNOXVILLE (WATE) - Bill Lockett pleaded guilty Thursday to embezzling thousands of dollars from his former law firm after resigning as Knox County law director.
Lockett will not serve jail time in the plea deal. He will repay the remaining amount he has not already paid, about $32,000, and will spend three years on probation. He has until April 2013 to repay the rest.
The plea deal comes on a charge of Class C felony theft over $10,000.
Lockett admitted to the county pension board in May 2009 that he accepted payments from clients without paying his former law firm, Kennerly, Montgomery and Finley, P.C.
Between May 24, 2005 and August 31, 2008, Lockett is accused of taking $62,572.99 in fees that should have been paid to his firm.
Lockett has repaid $30,550 to the firm to date.
There's no indication that any theft occurred while Lockett served as Knox County law director, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. He earned a salary of 154,320 while he held that position.
In entering the plea, Lockett waived any right to seek diversion in the case. If diversion had been possible, it would have allowed the charge to be expunged if Lockett completed his probation successfully.
The admitted theft happened about three years before Lockett became law director. Lockett said he needed the money to cover medical bills for his son.
The Knox County Commission voted to censure Lockett and asked for his resignation in June 2009, but he refused.
Special Prosecutor H. Greeley Wells, Jr., who serves as Sullivan County district attorney general, asked the TBI to open a case on Lockett in June 2009.
The case file included more than 100 interviews and the review of a large amount of financial records.
Lockett left the courtroom Thursday morning without giving an interview.
Before he entered his guilty plea, Lockett gave his resignation letter to Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale and commission Chairman Thomas Strickland, Jr.
He wrote in it, to those who might understandably be tempted to speculate, my beloved son Trent's death is not a reason for my deciding to resign, but it has brought into focus what in life is most important."
Trent Lockett, 20, died in December in an accidental shooting at the family's home.
"My primary concern was to have him resign from office and that has been achieved," Wells said after the plea.
Lockett still has his law license, at least for now. He still has to appear before the Board of Professional Responsibility, which could disbar him. He can't run for office again in Tennessee. His felony conviction disqualifies him.
The guilty plea and resignation caught a number of Knox County commissioners off guard Thursday. Many say they feel for Lockett personally, but believe this is best for the county.
"I was one of the many who called on him to resign when this was first revealed. I think that would've been the better way to go, but now it has happened and I think that is the appropriate resolution," said Commissioner Mark Harmon.
"It is something that happened and those of us who are in the public eye, particularly those running for elected office like this, we cannot have these things in our background and expect to serve the public as we should," said Commissioner Ed Shouse.
Deputy Knox County Law Director Joe Jarrett is currently serving as interim law director. He said he would be interested in the appointment as director.
County commission will officially appoint an interim director on April 20 in a public hearing. Then commissioners start accepting resumes of candidates seeking the appointment.
The appointed law director will only serve through an election for the post.
The public will vote on the next law director, but Knox County officials are checking with the state to determine when that election could be held.