Knox County Judge Richard Baumgartner entered a guilty plea Thursday morning to one count of official misconduct, and agreed to step down from the bench immediately. He will serve two years of judicial diversion, and, pending a clean two years, he will not have a criminal record.
"I love this judicial system, and for the past 19 years, I've done my best to bring credit to this system," Baumgartner told the court. "I have let this system, my family, and my community down."
Baumgartner is accused of accepting drugs from a defendant who appeared in his court room. Chris Gibson is a convicted felon, who was on probation for reckless endangerment and aggravated assault.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation began looking into the matter in September 2010. In January 2011, TBI agents searched Gibson's home and found a gun, which was a violation of his probation. They started asking more questions of Gibson, and, at that point, prosecutors said Gibson admitted supplying Baumgartner with controlled substances from November 2009 to September 2010.
Prosecutors said Baumgartner bought percocet, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and suboxone, which is a narcotic often used to combat an addiction to opiate drugs.
Prosecutors say Baumgartner purchased the drugs from Gibson two to three times a week, with 10 to 20 pills being exchanged each time. Shortly thereafter, a photograph emerged of Baumgartner's car in Gibson's driveway and later another which showed the two men near Baumgartner's car.
Prosecutors also allege Baumgartner made contact with Gibson more than 800 times between January 2010 and January 2011.
Baumgartner agreed to plead guilty to the one-count information. Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood then sentenced him to two years but granted him judicial diversion. Baumgartner also agreed to step down from the bench immediately.
"I am solely at fault and I accept that," Baumgartner said.
Baumgartner said he had a disease, but he did not offer it as an excuse.
"He has taken responsibility for his actions," defense attorney Don Bosch said. "He still has a lot to offer the community, his family, and himself."
Baumgartner admits, as a judge, he should be held to a higher standard than that of a normal citizen, but he requested judicial diversion because he felt he still had something to offer his family and the community.
People who have worked for and with Baumgartner over the years filled the courtroom on Thursday. Some shed tears.
Even Al Shmutzer, the special prosecutor in the case, said it was not an easy case for him to take on, despite his legal experience.
"It's a difficult case, probably the most difficult case I've handled in 36 years," he said. "It's tough to see someone who's done such a good job over the years all of a sudden have a situation where they fall from grace."
After hearing from both attorneys, Judge Blackwood spoke about how Baumgartner's action put a huge cloud over the judicial system. He said it would take time to lift that cloud.
"It's hard not to acknowledge the damage that's been done," Blackwood said. "This case points out how even the most revered walk with weakness."
Having said all that, Blackwood went on to say jail time was not necessary in this case, and that alternative sentencing would be appropriate. Blackwood said, "with a heavy heart," that he sentenced Baumgartner to two years but would allow it to be served on judicial diversion.
Bosch said that, after the hearing, Baumgartner would be returning to an inpatient rehab facility to finish his treatment.
Baumgartner's complete statement:
"First, I appreciate those who have sent their kind words of support to me and my family during this difficult time. I especially appreciate the unwavering support of those individuals who have been fully aware of my struggles and who continue to stand by me.
I am, today, a very humble man. I apologize to my family, and to the citizens of Knox County for my inappropriate and irresponsible conduct.
I have strived to be faithful and provide honest services to the people of Knox County - to anyone who has appeared before me as a juror, victim, witness, defendant, or interested citizen. At times, the case load I have handled has been extremely heavy, and the cases over which I have presided have been some of the most difficult and complex ever prosecuted in Knox County. In retrospect, I should have taken more personal time to attend to my medical and personal issues, but I felt obligated and compelled to complete the job that I was elected to do.
I did not set out to abuse prescription pain medication, much less fall into a cycle of addiction. I have had numerous medical and surgical procedures causing pain and discomfort that would, at least in part, be alleviated by prescription pain medication. Use of this medication led to dependence and, ultimately, addiction. It has dramatically altered my life and led to enormous errors in judgment. Addiction is a cunning, baffling, and powerful disease and one from which I suffer. I say this not as an excuse but rather as an explanation.
Today I take full responsibility for my actions and am solely at fault for my conduct. I do so with a sober conscience, knowing that it was wrong to purchase pain pills from someone, who, initially unknown to me, had been placed on an agreed sentence from my court. I in no way provided any benefit to, or in any way altered this person's legal situation. I deeply regret my decision to engage in this conduct. It has cost me the respect of many in this community, which I hope to begin to earn back.
Public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the courts is of the utmost importance. Accordingly, I am now stepping down from my position as Knox County Criminal Court Judge. The citizens of Knox County have been served well during my absence, and I am certain that my successor will continue to provide the highest quality of judicial decision-making that Knox County has come to expect and deserves. I have tremendous respect for the citizens of Knox County, and appreciate the opportunity I have had to serve them over the last 19 years.
I ask for your prayers in my journey as I continue to deal with this and other serious, personal health concerns."
Stay with 10News and WBIR.com for the very latest on this story throughout the day.
Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner has worked out a plea agreement on an unknown charge.
The judge announced he was taking a medical leave of absence in January. The next day, TBI revealed the judge was subject of a criminal investigation.
TBI would not release any details of the allegations against the judge.
Baumgartner's attorney, Don Bosch, told 10News Baumgartner will be in court Thursday at 10 am to plead guilty to a one-count information, which means he'll effectively be charged and plead guilty at the same time. He will ask Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood for judicial diversion. No further details have been released about the nature of the accusations against the judge.
Baumgartner's mugshot now appears on the 24 hour arrest list on the Knox County Sheriff's Department website. Bosch said he turned himself in on Wednesday for procedural reasons and was then released.
Baumgartner has presided over a number of high profile cases in Knox County, including all four murder cases involving the killings of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom.
Stay with 10News and WBIR.com for further developments.