Plea agreement ends Watkins’ time in office

Published 8:15 pm Friday, January 6, 2012

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Four days into her fifth term as circuitclerk, Terry Lynn Watkins pleaded no contest Friday to amisdemeanor and resigned from office.

    Watkins pleaded on a misdemeanor charge of late deposit of countyfunds, part of a plea bargain allowing Watkins to avoid a trial on14 felony counts of embezzlement. The trial was scheduled to beginMonday.

    The plea bargain required Watkins to resign as circuit clerk andagree never to seek public office again, said District Attorney DeeBates.

    Senior Status Judge William Coleman, appointed to preside over thecase, sentenced Watkins to one day in jail, suspended for goodbehavior. She must also pay court costs and attorneys’ fees.

    Bates initially presented no sentencing recommendation to thecourt, but after conferring with Watkins’ defense attorneysconsented to the one-day suspended sentence as the state’srecommendation.

    “The resolution of this case is a good outcome for the citizens ofLincoln County,” Bates said. “Mrs. Watkins’ actions were seriousand the consequences of her plea are appropriate.”

    Though Watkins’ plea comes not even a week into a fifth term shewon re-election to last November, Bates said the plea bargain sheaccepted was offered more than a year ago.

    “She could have taken it any time between then and now,” Batessaid.

    Watkins’ reasons for waiting until the eve of her trial to take theplea deal remain unclear.

    At Friday’s hearing before Coleman, Watkins was careful toemphasize she was pleading “no contest” rather than “guilty,”although Coleman pointed out the equivalence of the two.

    However, Watkins’ plea of no contest allows her to maintain herinnocence while acknowledging that the state had enough evidence toconvict her in a trial.

    During the hearing, Watkins’ attorney Matt Kitchens described herplea as in her “best interest” even though she feels she is notguilty of the crimes she has been charged with. Watkins wasunavailable for comment following Friday’s hearing.

    Bates said had the case moved to trial he would have demonstratedWatkins embezzled $141,148 by moving money she should not havetouched.

    A circuit clerk manages multiple accounts, including criminal,civil and general operating accounts, Bates explained. Money can betransferred from one account to another, but Bates said some fundsremain off limits.

    Elaborating on the charges contained within the indictment, Batessaid Watkins transferred bond money and restitution paymentsdeposited at her office into her general operating fund. The DAsaid he had bookkeeping entries and transfers of wire records hewould have entered into evidence.

    Watkins’ indictment also alleged some money she withdrew from hergeneral operating fund was not returned by the required date.

    Of the money he contends Watkins embezzled, Bates said $58,300remains missing. Bates said he plans to recover that money byseizing a bond Watkins is required to have as a publicofficial.

    The state auditor’s office initiated and performed theinvestigation from which the indictment’s allegations originated,Bates said.

    Watkins was first indicted for embezzlement November 2010, anindictment Coleman threw out Jan. 6, 2010 due to vagueness oflanguage. Specifically, the indictment did not identify toColeman’s satisfaction who the money Watkins’ allegedly embezzledbelonged to.

    Watkins was indicted again on Feb. 15 of last year. In the Nov 8,2011 general elections, Watkins, running as a Democrat, defeatedher Republican opponent Dustin Bairfield by 53.42 percent to 46.33percent. She took her oath of office Dec. 22 and officially beganher fifth term Tuesday.

    Bates pointed to Watkins’ re-election as a factor that could havecomplicated jury selection had her case moved to trial.

    “(It) indicates she is still liked by the electors of LincolnCounty, the same citizens from whom a jury tasked with deciding herguilt would have been chosen,” Bates said.