KNOXVILLE (WATE) – Richard Baumgartner pleaded guilty to official misconduct Thursday and resigned from the bench as a Knox County Criminal Court judge.
Baumgartner and his attorney, Don Bosch, made a plea agreement with the state.
The plea was entered in a court hearing Thursday before Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood who gave Baumgartner a suspended sentence and two years of judicial diversion.
If Baumgartner completes his diversion successfully, he will not receive a felony conviction and he would be allowed to keep his state pension.
Baumgartner was investigated by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for several months.
Retired District Attorney General Al Schmutzer, Jr., the special prosecutor on the case, said Baumgartner received pills including Percocet and Roxicodone from November 2009 to September 2010 from Chris Gibson, a convicted felon who was on probation in the judge’s court.
Schmutzer said Baumgartner received pills two to three times a week, sometimes 10 to 20 pills at a time.
Gibson felt Baumgartner did not recognize him at first and pointed out at one point that he was on probation, but Schmutzer said Baumgartner continued getting pills.
Schmutzer said the state obtained photos of Baumgartner’s car in Gibson’s driveway and of the two men with Baumgartner’s car in that driveway.
Gibson’s ex-wife, Darlene Gibson, took at least one of the photos and gave it to her attorney, Russell Greene, after Chris Gibson allegedly threatened to use his influence with Baumgartner in their divorce.
The TBI got the photo this week. But not before Greene resisted and then, through his attorney, Greg Isaacs, and a ruling by the Board of professional Responsibility, he negotiated the hand off.
Schmutzer also said in the hearing that the state compiled 13 months of phone records showing about 800 calls between Baumgartner and Gibson.
Some of the calls were recorded when Baumgartner and Gibson were discussing the investigation including one when Gibson told Baumgartner he was questioned about selling pills to him. Schmutzer said Baumgartner simply changed the subject.
The ex-judge had requested two years of judicial diversion. The state had requested two years of probation.
His attorney said Baumgartner has been receiving treatment for his addiction at a medical facility and now has “his demon under control.” He added that Baumgartner still has much to offer this community.
“I stand here today a humble man. I have a disease, and it is a serious disease,” Baumgartner told Judge Blackwood. He added that he does not offer that as a excuse but he seeks to continue benefiting his family and the citizens of Knox County.
“I take absolute and full responsibility for my conduct. I deeply regret that I have brought disfavor on a system that I care so much about,” Baumgartner said.
In his statement to Judge Blackwood, Schmutzer called this a “sad day” for the judicial system across the state, and said Baumgartner “violated the trust the people have placed in him.”
Schmutzer added that Baumgartner’s actions have created a cloud over cases he’s presided over in the past two years. Those include some of the Christian-Newsommurder cases and the trial for Raynella Dossett Leath.
Judge Blackwood said the system is about tragedy. “It’s the shipwreck of broken lives and it’s born out in the situation we have today.”
It took a period of time for Baumgartner to abuse his authority and it will take time to clear the shadow over system, Judge Blackwood added.
“Incarceration would serve no purpose in this case,” Judge Blackwood said and agreed to alternative sentencing.
After the proceeding, the office of Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols offered no comment.
But Knoxville attorney John Valliant had this to say. “I was really sad about this because I’ve known him for 30 years and it’s just sad that this can happen to a man of his stature.”
Valliant also felt judicial diversion was the proper punishment and believes that Baumgartner will be a productive citizen in the future.
“He fell victim to what millions of other people have and that’s addiction to pain pills. I say he’s already rehabilitated. Sure he’s gong to be on a two-year diversion, but he’s a good citizen and a good man,” Valliant said.
Social media was abuzz with questions after the hearing including a tweet to 6 News Anchor Gene Patterson asking, “Does that mean he has to take a shortcut? What’s judicial diversion, code for get off scot-free?”
6 News legal analyst Greg Isaacs has appeared in Judge Baumgartner’s court for nearly two decades. He says he doesn’t believe Baumgartner got off scot-free.
“I think Judge Blackwood was just and merciful when he granted judicial diversion, and I think that’s appropriate in Judge Baumgartner’s case because I’ve seen him on the bench show mercy. I’ve seen him struggle with decisions and it was ironic when he was on the other side of bench,” Isaacs said.
“I was glad Judge Blackwood did what Judge Baumgartner would do and that is to be merciful,” Isaacs added.