Knox Trustee John Duncan III pleads guilty, resigns

Knox Trustee John Duncan III pleads guilty to official misconduct, resigns

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Knox County Trustee John Duncan III (source: Knox County) Knox County Trustee John Duncan III (source: Knox County)
Duncan's father, Rep. John Duncan, Jr. (left), sits with other family members and attorneys in court. Duncan's father, Rep. John Duncan, Jr. (left), sits with other family members and attorneys in court.
Duncan said he would restore trust in January 2012 when he appeared on 6 News' Tennessee This Week, his first television appearance as a candidate. Duncan said he would restore trust in January 2012 when he appeared on 6 News' Tennessee This Week, his first television appearance as a candidate.
"Lynn and I love our son very much and we're very proud," Rep. Duncan told 6 News. "He's done a great job as Trustee, and we're going move on into the future." "Lynn and I love our son very much and we're very proud," Rep. Duncan told 6 News. "He's done a great job as Trustee, and we're going move on into the future."

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - Knox County Trustee John Duncan III pleaded guilty Tuesday morning to official misconduct and resigned from office.

As part of a deal with the guilty plea, Duncan was sentenced to serve one year of unsupervised probation.

Duncan, the son of U.S. Congressman John Duncan, Jr., appeared in court with his father, his mother and his wife, Jennifer. He did not make a statement during the hearing.

John Duncan III's Resignation Letter

The charge and plea agreement stem from a bonus Duncan gave himself in connection to a continuing education program, the University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Services (CTAS) program.

Duncan awarded $60,000 in bonuses to six staffers and himself for taking the online courses. The money was paid before the course work was completed.

The trustee, who was first elected in 2010, first gave out the bonuses in December 2010 and October 2011.

All trustee's staff members and Duncan returned their bonuses, but the county law director turned the matter over to the district attorney general's office for further investigation because of accusations the trustee tried to cover up the bonuses.

County Commission R. Larry Smith said at the time computer files and other evidence were destroyed.

During the hearing on Tuesday, prosecutor Bill Bright alleged that Duncan lied to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation by saying that no one ever told him that he couldn't collect bonuses before completion of the training program.

"He told the TBI at the time, 'Nobody told me it wasn't proper to make CTAS payments prior,'" he said.

However, three employees of the Trustee's office, including David Skinner, told the TBI that they had warned Duncan.

"Skinner states he even showed the defendant and Mr. Burnett that the language required completion," the prosecutor said, referring to Duncan and his former chief of staff Josh Burnett.

As part of his deal, Duncan has applied for judicial diversion. A hearing on that will be held on August 15.

In 2012, a state law was passed to prevent officials who commit a crime from receiving judicial diversion.

Rep. Ryan Haynes, who sponsored the bill, said it cannot be applied to this case because the crime was committed before the law passed.

Because the bonuses have already been repaid, Duncan will not have to pay restitution.

A worker in the trustee's office said Duncan will be replaced by Kristin Phillips, a 20-year Trustee's Office worker, who will be interim emergency successor.

Officials move forward

U.S. Rep. John Duncan, Jr. spoke briefly in support of his son outside the courthouse.

"Lynn and I love our son very much and we're very proud," Duncan told 6 News. "He's done a great job as Trustee, and we're going move on into the future."

In light of the ruling, Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett promised more accountability from the Trustee's Office.

"Today's events are certainly unfortunate. As Knox County moves forward, our finance department will work with our external auditors, and will also offer any assistance necessary to the Trustee's office in order to ensure that taxpayer business continues properly."

Chad Tindell, a former Trustee's Office staffer and delinquent tax attorney, told 6 News he had mixed feelings about the case.

"I was put in a very difficult position.  I am very happy to have moved on both personally and professionally. There are a lot of good employees in the Trustee's office.  I feel for them as they go through yet another change," he said.

Tindell, who was also charged as part of the scandal, pled guilty to one count of facilitation of official misconduct in December and was given judicial diversion.

Commissioner R. Larry Smith hopes the decision will start to regain the public's trust in the Trustee's Office.

"Look what we've just had in the last couple of administrations in the trustee. We've had a lot of distrust," Smith said.

The next step will be appointing a new trustee.

"Let's put somebody in there that can do the job," he said.

County commission will soon begin the process to fill the position until next year's election.

"We will accept resumes. We will have a public hearing and have them go through a formal interview process and then we'll vote," Commissioner Mike Hammond said.

Hammond said he would rather appoint someone not interested in running in 2014 to avoid politicizing the appointment.

"I think someone needs to come in and provide leadership for the office and someone needs to provide to the citizens the peace of mind that there is someone professional there who is at the helm and then they'll have the chance to vote on the next trustee," he said.

The county website already shows they are moving forward. There is now a blank spot where John Duncan III's picture used to be.

Commissioner Smith said he has already received calls from people interested in the position.

He himself has not decided whether he will seek the position, but told 6 News he was considering it.

A political career in turmoil

John Duncan, III's political career started with great promise.

An easy win in both the primary and general elections in 2010 appeared to many as the beginning of his ascension and the continuation of the Duncan political dynasty.

Throughout the early part of 2010, candidate John Duncan, III stressed two things - efficiency and trust.

The Trustee's office had been mired in scandal with rumors of ghost employees and corruption in the Mike Lowe administration. Lowe is currently under indictment.

Duncan said he would change that and in January of that year when he appeared on 6 News' Tennessee This Week, his first television appearance as a candidate.

"We can put an end to scandals and investigations that have distracted not only the Trustee's Office, but county government as well. I can bring about the best government possible," Duncan said on the show.

He was easily elected in the primary and in August won the Trustee position in a landslide.

"For that I say thank you, and together, with your help we will put trust back in the Trustee's office," Duncan said in an advertisement after the election.

Despite his insistence on bringing trust back to the office, the record shows that within days of taking office, Duncan was approving state bonuses for himself and others in his office for a certification process that neither he nor the others had completed.

A year later in 2011, he did the same thing.

In early January of 2012, he again appeared on Tennessee This Week, admitting he had paid bonuses, but had the authority under the salary suit that is filed annually by his office.

But he also said - the policy of paying in advance was over.

"In the future, only people who are certified are going to be paid. Anyone who's already received a payment will have to pay it back," he said.

But the TBI was already investigating and heard from others in the office that Duncan was told that they were illegal and that he knew better.

In December of 2012, Duncan's Chief of Staff Josh Burnett and Tax Attorney Chad Tindell pleaded guilty to facilitation of official misconduct. Both would eventually be granted judicial diversion.

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