BELL COUNTY, Ky. (WYMT) - 2-27-2014
A case against Bell County Clerk Rebecca "Becky" Blevins and two county employees has been dismissed.
A grand jury indicted Blevins, Kayla Carnes, and Connie Watkins in December after Attorney General investigators accused the women of forging documents to keep tax refunds intended for people who bought cars in Tennessee and registered them in Bell County.
The terms of the dismissal state that Blevins can no longer seek public office after her current term ends.
We will have more on this story later.
Bell County Clerk Rebecca "Becky" Blevins and two employees pleaded not guilty on Monday to various charges.
A grand jury indicted Blevins, Kayla Carnes, and Connie Watkins in December.
Circuit Judge David Tapp, a special-appointed judge from the Pulaski County, is handling the case.
Bell County Clerk Becky Blevins pleaded not guilty to charges of abuse of public trust and criminal possession of a forged instrument. Deputy clerks Connie Watkins and Kayla Carnes pleaded not guilty to charges of criminal possession of a forged instrument.
"I really don't see anything coming out that would affect her innocence. I think she has a strong case and that's something she's very eager to prove since the beginning," said Michael Ingram, defense attorney for Carnes.
Last year, Attorney General investigators accused the women of forging documents to keep tax refunds intended for people who bought cars in Tennessee and registered them in Bell County.
The special-appointed prosecutor from Whitley County indicated he will try the three women separately. Because of this, the judge lifted the bond restriction where they could not have contact with one another. This allows Watkins and Carnes to return to work at the Bell County Clerk's office if they choose to.
"There are no conspiracy charges so the no contact order doesn't make any sense. So we're glad Judge Tapp saw that issue, recognized it, and lifted it," said Ronald Bowling, defense attorney for Watkins.
The judge scheduled the trials to start on March 17th.
"We have to start going through files and the records and audit reports and go from there," said Bowling.
"The quicker it goes to trial, the quicker a trial date is set, the the quicker it is over for everyone and that's something we're actually pleased about," said Ingram.
The defense attorney for Blevins did not comment after court.
A special-appointed prosecutor from Whitley County is handling the case. He said he will determine in two weeks which woman will go on trial first.
A Bell County grand jury indicted Bell County Clerk Rebecca "Becky" Blevins and two employees.
The grand jury returned the indictments late Wednesday afternoon.
Blevins is charged with three counts of abuse of public trust and one count of criminal possession of a forged instrument.
Kayla Carnes is charged with five counts of criminal possession of a forged instrument.
Connie Brown Watkins is charged with one count of criminal possession of a forged instrument.
The indictments say the charges relate to vehicle transfers.
Earlier this month during a preliminary hearing, an Attorney General investigator accused the women of a scheme where they kept tax refunds from people who purchased vehicles in Tennessee and registered them in Bell County.
The indictment against Blevins claims she did not make the required payments to the taxpayers in 2009 to 2011.
The indictment says state audits showed the Sales Tax Receipts had a shortage of $6,392.04 in 2009, $14,817.25 in 2010, and $1,237.00 in 2011.
The indictments also say Blevins, Carnes, and Watkins had forged vehicle transfer registration documents on the cars involved and entered them into the Kentucky vehicle registration system.
There is no word yet on any court dates for Blevins, Carnes, and Watkins.
A special-appointed prosecutor is handling the case.
A district judge dismissed some of the charges against Bell County Clerk Becky Blevins and three of her employees. The felony charges still stand.
This happened on Monday during a preliminary hearing.
During the hearing, the special prosecutor from Whitley County called the the Attorney General Investigator to the stand. Paul Underwood testified in 2009-2011, Bell County Clerk Becky Blevins kept tax refunds intended for people who purchased vehicles in Tennessee and then registered them in Bell County.
"Resulting in a refund to the taxpayer, but Becky Blevins never refunded the money to the taxpayer," Underwood testified.
As an example, he said one man purchased a 2010 Chevrolet Avalanche in Knoxville, TN and paid estimated taxes and registration to the dealer. The dealer sent the money to the Bell County Clerk's office. The check was issued for $1,256.50 but the clerk recorded the taxes as $837.79. He never received a refund for the difference.
Underwood also claimed the women forged a deputy sheriff's signature on inspections for Vehicle Transaction Records (VTR).
"The owner of the vehicle stated they never had their vehicle inspected," said Underwood.
He also accused the women of shredding documents to conceal the theft. He testified other courthouse employees claimed the women shredded documents after hours.
Defense attorneys argued there was no evidence the women forged signatures and kept the tax refunds.
After testimony, special-appointed Judge Skip Hammons ruled the statute of limitations had run out on the misdemeanor charges because more than one year has passed since the alleged activity. He dismissed the official misconduct charge against Blevins.
"I have no choice," Judge Hammons said during court.
He also dismissed the theft charge. He sent the felony forgery charge to the grand jury.
"We got everything dismissed against Miss Blevins except for one charge, and I think we can take care of that," said Lowell Lundy, defense attorney for Blevins.
The judge also dismissed the theft related charges against Flora Ferrell, Kayla Carnes, and Connie Watkins.
The forgery charges against Carnes and Watkins are going to the grand jury.
"Little disappointed the felony charge will proceed but I feel like if it survives the grand jury, I welcome the challenge because I feel it's a charge we can beat," said Stephanie L. McKeehan, defense attorney for Watkins.
"She just really wants to push forward, show that she's innocent and that's what we believe we'll be able to do in the upcoming weeks and months," said Michael Ingram, defense attorney for Carnes.
The prosecutor indicated in court he intends to present the case to the grand jury this month.
Flora Ferrell had no felony charges so her entire case was dismissed. Ferrell declined to comment after the hearing. Her attorney said during court that she left her job at the Bell County Clerk's office last year.
Defense attorneys for Blevins, Carnes, and Watkins requested a reduced bond in the case. The judge reduced it to $25,000 unsecured and lifted the bond release requirement of electronic monitoring on the women. They are still not allowed to have contact with each other.
The Bell County Clerk's office has re-opened and Clerk Becky Blevins was back at work on Friday following her arrest.
The Bell County Fiscal Court was also able to hold its meeting.
Bell County Clerk Becky Blevins was at the meeting. It was her first day back at the courthouse following her arrest one week ago.
"I came over to support Becky. She's a friend of mine," said Angela Jackson who was at the fiscal court meeting.
Blevins' bond release conditions originally banned her from the courthouse, which affected county business and the fiscal court could not legally meet.
District Judge Skip Hammons lifted the courthouse ban and allowed her to re-open the clerk's office and perform the clerk's duties at the Bell County Fiscal Court meeting.
The Bell County Fiscal Court could not pay its bills until magistrates approved it during a meeting. They could not legally meet without the County Clerk present. They were able to meet on Friday morning and now the county can pay its bills.
"We do business with a lot of vendors. A lot of people count on the money that they receive from the county to make payroll, feed their families, so we're glad we're able to do what we're supposed to do and that's get them their money," said Judge-Executive Albey Brock.
When the clerk's office opened Friday morning, people lined up to get vehicle tags, check deeds, and file for local elections.
"I was glad she was open so I could get my package to run," said Jackson who is filing to run for office.
We were unable to speak with Blevins at the courthouse, but workers said she is back to work.
The other three women charged in the case, Connie Watkins, Flora Ferrell, and Kayla Carnes are still not allowed on courthouse property per their bond release.
The next court appearance for all four women in scheduled for December 2nd.
Bell County Clerk Becky Blevins is now allowed back on courthouse property. The clerk's office could re-open on Friday.
Blevins and the three employees who were arrested last week were arraigned in court Thursday morning.
Blevins and employees Connie Watkins, Flora Ferrell, and Kayla Carnes all pleaded not guilty to theft related charges.
Attorney General investigators accused them of keeping tax refunds intended for people who bought vehicles in another state.
"I hope the public will realize people are presumed to be innocent and we look forward to discussing this case in front of a jury with the Attorney General's office," said Lowell Lundy, one of the defense attorneys for Blevins.
As part of their bond release and home incarceration rules, the four women were banned from Bell County Courthouse property.
Blevins' attorney asked Judge Skip Hammons to let her go back to work at the Bell County Clerk's office. Her attorney stated she was elected to the position and has a right to uphold her constitutional office.
Bell County Attorney Neil Ward stated the Attorney General's office originally wanted the courthouse ban because investigators did not want Blevins to destroy potential evidence while at the office. Ward also stated more charges are possible in the case.
Blevin's attorney stated she would not destroy evidence while at the office.
Bell County Attorney Ward did not object to the request of re-opening the clerk's office.
"We would like her back to get the clerk's office open so the Commonwealth and the Attorney General's office approves of this, this is not Neil Ward speaking, of letting Ms. Blevins return to work as the county clerk. We wouldn't have any trouble since she's elected to constitutional office. The people of Bell County need the clerk back and need the office open," Ward told the judge.
Judge Hammons agreed to let Blevins return to the office. She remains under home incarceration with electronic monitoring, but the judge amended the bond release conditions to allow Blevins to go to the courthouse during business hours to work.
"She is a very honorable public servant. She's been elected to office twice. She's never gotten a parking ticket in her life," Lundy said of Blevins going back to work.
Now that Blevins can return, the Bell County Fiscal Court scheduled its November meeting for Friday at 11:00am.
The other three women are still not allowed at the Bell County Courthouse. Their bond release conditions remain the same.
Carnes' attorney asked the judge if Carnes could seek employment elsewhere because she is not allowed at the Bell County Clerk's office. Judge Hammons agreed to let her leave home for employment that is not at the courthouse.
The judge set a preliminary hearing for all women on December 2nd.
Bell County Attorney Neil Ward recused himself from hearing. He stated in court it is because he knows all four women charged in the case.
Judge Hammons from Knox County will also serve as special judge for the preliminary hearing.
Bell County Clerk Becky Blevins and three employees are out of jail but officials say they are not allowed at the courthouse.
On Friday, Attorney General investigators arrested clerk Becky Blevins and employees Connie Watkins, Kayla Carnes, and Flora Ferrell on theft and other charges.
Court officials say the four women posted bond on Tuesday. Their bond was reduced this week. Records show Blevins posted a $25,000 cash bond. Watkins posted a $10,000 cash bond. Ferrell posted a $10,000 surety bond. Carnes posted ten percent of $25,000.
Court records show the four women must wear an ankle bracelet on home incarceration. They are not allowed to have any contact with co-defendants or witnesses or any relatives of co-defendants or witnesses. They are also not allowed on the property of the Bell County Courthouse.
The Bell County Clerk's office remains closed, and officials say it is affecting county business.
Demps Duncan says he needs to fix a car title at the Bell County Clerk's office but he cannot.
"I showed up Friday, and it was closed and they said it would be open Tuesday, so I waited and come back today to get it fixed, and nobody here to get it done," Duncan said.
Officials say the closed office means people cannot tag vehicles, check deeds, get a marriage license, or file for local elections in Bell County.
The Bell County Fiscal Court also could not hold its November meeting on Tuesday.
"We by statute cannot have a fiscal court meeting. We must have a clerk present to record our actions in order for our actions to carry the weight to be legal," Judge-Executive Albey Brock announced when the meeting was supposed to begin.
Brock says they cannot pay the county's bills until magistrates approve it in a meeting.
"Those folks need their money and we need to get it to them, and we can't do that until we have a clerk present and we can have a meeting," Brock said.
Brock says he is consulting with state officials in Frankfort on what to do without a clerk present.
"We are required to conduct business every 30 days and we are at that point. It's a little volatile right now, I think everyone knows. Until we can make communication with our clerk or some of our deputy clerks, we're in somewhat state of limbo," Brock said.
Brock says they will schedule a special-called fiscal court meeting for November when they determine how to handle the clerk situation.
Officials say people in Bell County who need to get vehicle tags or a marriage license can check with a clerk's office in another county to see if they can do it there.
The four women are scheduled to be arraigned on Thursday. Judge Skip Hammons from Laurel and Knox Counties will handle the proceedings.
The Bell County Clerk and three of her employees are in jail.
Officials with the Attorney General's Office say clerk Becky Blevins and the other employees had a scheme that involved pocketing vehicle tax refunds intended for the car owners.
The Bell County Clerk's office closed on Friday while Attorney General investigators went through the office and carried out boxes to their car.
"No one knew anything about it until today, so needless to say, it took me by surprise," said Kim Goley who saw the investigators at the courthouse.
Investigators arrested Clerk Becky Blevins, and three employees, Kayla Carnes, Flora Ferrell, and Connie Watkins.
"Everybody is entitled to a fair day and trial. I hope they get it and this isn't just a bunch of political stuff," said Bob Wilson who lives in Bell County.
Officials say more than 50 people who bought a vehicle in another state never got a tax refund they were owed. Blevins, Ferrell, and Carnes are accused of pocketing $12,200. Watkins is accused of helping them.
"I'm shocked. Why do you want to steal the people's money?" said Goley. "You know, we voted these people in to do a job, not to take our money."
Blevins' defense attorney Lowell Lundy did not want to comment yet on the accusations and charges.
Blevins is being held in the Harlan County Detention Center on a $100,000 bond.
The other three women are in the Bell County Detention Center.
No court dates are set yet in the case. Officials say a judge from another county will handle the court proceedings.
The Attorney General's Office listed the following charges.
45-year-old Rebecca Blevins, Bell County Clerk. Blevins is charged with theft by failure to make required disposition of property valued over $500 and less than $10,000, a Class D felony; criminal possession of a forged instrument, a Class D felony; and official misconduct in the first degree, a Class A misdemeanor.
55-year-old Flora Ferrell, Bell County Deputy Clerk. Ferrell is charged with theft by failure to make required disposition of property valued over $500 and less than $10,000, a Class D felony, and criminal conspiracy, a Class A misdemeanor.
23-year-old Kayla Carnes, Bell County Deputy Clerk. Carnes is charged with theft by failure to make required disposition of property valued over $500 and less than $10,000, a Class D felony, and criminal conspiracy, a Class A misdemeanor.
40-year-old Connie Watkins, Bell County Deputy Clerk. Watkins is charged with criminal possession of a forged instrument in the second degree, a Class D felony.
Officials with the Attorney General's Office arrested Bell County Clerk Becky Blevins and three employees on Friday.
Jail officials say Blevins faces one count of official misconduct, 10 counts of theft by failure to make required disposition and one count of criminal possession of a forged instrument.
Officials set Blevins' bond at 100 thousand dollars cash.
Meanwhile, employee Kayla Carnes faces criminal possession of a forged instrument and theft by failure to make required disposition charges.
Connie Watkins, also an employee, is charged with criminal possession of a forged instrument and criminal conspiracy of theft by failure to make required disposition charges.
Flora Ferrell is charged with theft by failure to make required disposition and criminal conspiracy
Both Bell County Clerk's Offices in Middlesboro and Pineville are closed because of the investigation.
In September State Auditor Adam Edelen referred the Bell County Clerk's 2011 audit to several other agencies for investigation including the Attorney General.
State auditors questioned reports and money on the vehicle transactions and payments. Auditors also claimed the records were not adequate.
The audit includes responses from Bell County Clerk Becky Blevins who claimed the office does have the proper records required by Kentucky law.