Former vice mayor of Surgoinsville pleads guilty to misconduct

Jeff Bobo • Oct 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM

SURGOINSVILLE — Former Surgoinsville Vice Mayor Charles “Otis” Lawson pleaded guilty Friday to two counts of felony official misconduct, and although he won’t be doing any prison time, he also won’t be eligible to hold public office again.

Lawson, 61, 1315 W. Main St., Surgoinsville, had been scheduled for trial in February but instead opted to accept a plea agreement in Hawkins County Circuit Court on Friday.

In exchange for guilty pleas on both counts, Lawson was sentenced to two years probation and ordered to pay Surgoinsville $4,590 in restitution for the crimes.

Surgoinsville had also been seeking for Lawson to pay 100 percent of the cost of an audit conducted in 2007-08 by the Tennessee Office of the Comptroller of the Treasury.

That audit, which revealed Lawson’s illegal activity, cost Surgoinsville $20,000. It was requested by current Mayor Johnny Greer shortly after he was elected in November 2006 when several items of military surplus were discovered missing.

Instead, as part of the plea agreement arranged by state comptroller prosecutor Chad Jackson, Lawson was ordered to pay only 10 percent of the audit cost, or $2,000.

Although the town was stuck with an $18,000 bill, Greer said Friday that uncovering the truth was worth the cost.

“It clears the names of some officeholders who are in now and weren’t part of this wrongdoing, in the event that this came up at a later date,” Greer said. “It’s a lot of money, but I felt it was something we had to do — to know the truth behind some things that were discovered after I came into office. I’m just glad it’s over and now we can move on.”

Lawson was originally indicted on four charges including three counts of official misconduct and one count of theft related to missing military surplus items.

One of the official misconduct counts Lawson pleaded guilty to Friday stemmed from him concealing a conflict of interest from the town through repeated denial of his ownership interest in A&L Contractors.

The comptroller’s audit report states that on Aug. 9, 2004, Lawson asked the town attorney whether it would be a conflict of interest for a business he co-owned, A&L Contractors, to service town vehicles. According to records, Lawson was told that it would be a conflict of interest.

“Subsequent to receiving that legal advice, during the period of Jan. 11, 2006, through Aug. 3, 2006, the town of Surgoinsville paid A&L Contractors $4,590 for work done on town vehicles,” the report states.

The other official misconduct charge Lawson pleaded guilty to stemmed from him receiving a kickback for work performed on a town vehicle.

The report stated that Lawson required and received a kickback on a $170 town check for vehicle repair payable to “Randy’s Fabricating,” which ironically turned out to be a company fabricated by Lawson.

“In an interview of the purported owner of Randy’s Fabricating, he stated it was M. Lawson’s idea to create the fictional company and have him submit the invoice since it would be a conflict of interest for Mr. Lawson to submit an invoice for the work,” the report states.

Lawson second-endorsed the check, and according to the report, paid the purported owner of Randy’s Fabricating $20, keeping the remainder for himself.

The comptroller’s report released in October 2008 stated that between Jan. 1, 2006, and June 30, 2007, Surgoinsville received military surplus property valued at $872,580. As of the completion of the comptroller’s investigation, military surplus totaling $137,104 was still missing.

Lawson served on the Surgoinsville Board of Mayor and Aldermen from 2002 through the end of 2006, the last two years of which he was vice mayor under former Mayor Hanes Cooper.

Cooper, 77, of 306 Church St., Surgoinsville, is a current member of the Hawkins County Commission and a member of the Surgoinsville Utility District board of directors.

The comptroller’s office conducted an audit of the water utility as well, and Cooper remains under indictment on charges stemming from that report including money laundering, theft over $10,000, forgery over $10,000, conspiracy to commit forgery over $10,000, conspiracy to commit theft over $10,000, and two counts of official misconduct.

According to the comptroller’s audit report, Cooper received more than $65,000 in unlawful payments from the water utility between April 1, 1998, and Dec. 31, 2007.

Cooper’s daughter, Robin Hoffman, 42, also of 306 Church St., Surgoinsville, is also charged related to that investigation, and both are scheduled to appear in circuit court again Dec. 17 for a status report prior to their February trial dates.

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