The trial of a man accused of buying votes in the 2014 Monroe County sheriff’s election has once again been moved; this time to April 10. It had been set to start this week.
Court records from U.S. District Court in Knoxville show Brian “Wormy” Hodge, who is the accused in the case, had requested the continuance through his lawyers. The filing says the defense needs more time to review discovery, and that plea negotiations are ongoing. The state did not oppose the continuance.
Hodge had been indicted on 13 charges relating to the alleged vote buying, but a “superseding” indictment last June hit him with six of the old charges and one new charge.
The story behind the charges against Hodge is a familiar one to anyone living in Monroe County. A supporter of 2014 sheriff’s candidate Randy White, Hodge allegedly bought votes for White, paying between $20-$40 for each vote. White won that election but about a month into his term was removed from the job by a judge who ruled he was ineligible to serve because he had not been a full-time officer long enough.
The Monroe County Commission appointed Chief Deputy Tommy Jones II as sheriff. Jones easily won re-election in 2016.
There have always been rumors of vote buying in Monroe County, against both Republicans and Democrats, but this is the first time such high-profile people have been caught up in the net.
The charges against Hodge are witness tampering, conspiracy to commit voter fraud and five counts of vote buying. The new charge of witness tampering said Hodge told Betty Hawkins on July 13, 2016, not to talk to authorities about the alleged vote buying.
Hawkins pled guilty to a charge of conspiracy to pay and to offer to pay for voting earlier this year. Hawkins was scheduled to be sentenced last July but that was was rescheduled for April. She faces a sentence ranging from up to five years in prison, three years of probation and fines up to $250,000.
The indictments against Hodge allege he obtained and possessed absentee voter ballots, distributed currency to votes, provided transportation for voters to polling places and accompanied voters into the voting booth.
Sheriff Jones has said he had nothing to do with the alleged vote buying and maintains that stance, saying he did not run in 2014 and guarantees there was no vote buying in 2016.
“Some seem to think since I supported Randy in 2014 that I was somehow involved,” Jones said. “But I’m a Republican, so of course I supported Randy. I would have supported whoever got the nomination.”
Jones said he is under subpoena by the state to testify for the prosecution and is waiting for the October trial.
“I believe Brian is innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “But if he’s found guilty, he’ll need to do his time.”
Hodge is currently free as he awaits his trial. He lost his job as an EMT in Oak Ridge and since he cannot carry a gun, having been indicted by a federal grand jury, he cannot serve as an auxiliary deputy for the Sheriff’s Office, a job he held before the accusations began.
“Brian was unpaid and filled in whenever we needed him,” Jones said of the job, which has created some controversy. “But he can’t work for us as it now stands, even though I wouldn’t have any problem with him working for us until he’s actually convicted.”