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Wise County courtroom reporter pleads guilty to federal obstruction, conspiracy charges

Wes Bunch • Jun 12, 2013 at 10:49 PM

ABINGDON — A court reporter and television station owner from Wise County pleaded guilty in federal court in Abingdon Wednesday to charges of obstructing justice in the investigation of a Southwest Virginia attorney’s drug activities.

Ernest Julius Benko, 67, of Norton, pleaded guilty to a single count of obstruction of an official proceeding and one count of conspiracy to cause false statements and obstruct an official proceeding.

Benko faces a maximum penalty of up to 25 years in federal prison and a fine of $500,000. His sentencing is set for Sept. 10 in U.S. District Court in Abingdon.

“Mr. Benko deliberately impeded a federal investigation,” U.S. Attorney Timothy J. Heaphy said. “Lying to federal investigators is a serious crime and will be vigorously pursued by this United States Attorney’s Office.”

Benko’s charges were related to a separate case involving Wise County attorney Stuart Collins, 42. Collins was convicted last month on four counts of obtaining prescription drugs by fraud.

According to evidence presented by federal prosecutors, Benko was employed between 2008 and 2013 as a court reporter, private investigator, notary public and videographer for the Wise County Circuit Court and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Virginia.

During that five-year period, agents with the FBI and Virginia State Police were conducting an ongoing investigations into Collins’ drug activity.

In the spring of 2009, Collins hired Benko to record sworn statements from former clients of the attorney who were cooperating with the joint investigation by the FBI and VSP.

Prosecutors said Collins hired Benko for the purpose of recording statements that “falsely represent that Collins had no involvement in anything that was illegal or unethical.”

The false statements, authorities said, were designed to undermine the criminal investigation of Collins.

In one statement recorded by Benko, prosecutors said a witness was told to say he had been threatened by an FBI agent in order to make him cooperate with investigators, although no such threat had been made.

During a follow-up interview conducted in September 2012, Benko reportedly gave false statements to an FBI agent by saying he had no knowledge of Collins’ drug abuse.

Benko was initially indicted in February by a federal grand jury on multiple charges before being arrested.

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