Ex-judge blames his actions on wife’s affair — (Knoxville News-Sentinal)

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Knoxville News-Sentinal

By JAMIE SATTERFIELD, satterfield@knews.com

August 26, 2006

But prosecutor says kickback scheme has lined Austin’s pockets for decade

A former Roane County judge captured on videotape taking thousands of dollars in kickbacks is blaming his estranged wife’s affair with a woman for his foray into public corruption.

Thomas Alva Austin, 58, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to forcing kickbacks from men he handpicked to head up a traffic school and probation office, contends it was his second wife’s fling with a woman that drove him over the legal edge. In early 2005, while Mr. Austin and his second wife were in marital counseling, she admitted her year-long involvement in an extramarital lesbian relationship,” defense attorney Gregory P. Isaacs wrote on behalf of the former Roane County General Sessions Court judge.

“Mr. Austin was quite distraught, sought medical help for depression and was prescribed anti-depressants,” Isaacs wrote. “Additionally, he began drinking heavily despite earlier struggles with alcohol. All of the charges that are included in this indictment occurred after this difficult and tumultuous period in Mr. Austin’s personal life.”

Austin faces a penalty range of 37 to 46 months in a federal prison when U.S. District Judge Thomas Phillips decides his fate at a Sept. 7 sentencing hearing. As a run-up to that hearing, Isaacs and Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Atchley have filed dueling sentencing memorandums trying to sway Phillips toward their respective positions.

Isaacs paints Austin’s admitted extortion as a temporary lapse of judgment in an otherwise stellar career of public service. Atchley counters that a probe headed up by FBI Agent Robert Gibson shows that Austin has been wielding his power to line his own pockets for as long as a decade.

Included in Isaacs’ sentencing package are a slew of letters from Roane County citizens, attorneys and other Tennessee residents who commend the former judge for his public service.

Also included are letters from Austin’s four children, the oldest of whom writes, “My younger brother will have to live with his mother and her new girlfriend if my dad has to go away.”

Isaacs sets out in his memorandum Austin’s background, beginning with his birth in Chattanooga to a hard working but “closet alcoholic” father and “strong Christian mother.”

The Austins moved to Roane County when Thomas Austin and his brother were still young children. The pair’s parents “opened Austin’s IGA, a business that thrived in Roane County for 54 years,” Isaacs wrote. “Thomas Austin was essentially raised in his parents’ grocery store, working there throughout high school and during his breaks from college.”

Austin was first appointed to the Roane Sessions Court bench in 1978 by then-Gov. Ray Blanton, who would himself wind up imprisoned for corruption.

“Merely 30-years-old, Mr. Austin began a very long and busy career on the bench,” Isaacs wrote. “Mr. Austin was re-elected to the court in Roane County four times. He ultimately presided over six courts. For 20 years, Mr. Austin was the only general sessions judge in Roane County. In his judicial capacity, his workload was horrendous.”

Isaacs, who represents Austin along with defense attorney Jerrold L. Becker, does not directly address the crimes to which Austin has pleaded guilty nor the allegations of long-standing corruption contained in a search warrant affidavit drafted by Gibson before Austin’s arrest in January.

Austin has admitted taking roughly $14,000 in kickbacks in a six-month period in 2005. He was accused of using his position as judge to extort a portion of proceeds from two driving schools in Roane County and a private probation firm.

The judge had essentially handpicked the directors of the traffic schools, where Austin also sent driving scofflaws for remedial instruction at $50 a pop, and the probation office.

Gibson alleged in an affidavit that Austin had been extorting kickbacks for a decade and collected as much as $100,000. The document also included allegations that Austin regularly smoked marijuana – at least once while en route to a judicial conference.

Isaacs, on the other hand, described Austin as a man who had served honorably for most of his career, despite his guilty plea to corruption.

“For 28 years, Mr. Austin served his community as a judge, a leader and a productive citizen,” Isaacs wrote. “At no time was Mr. Austin charged with any crime or with judicial impropriety prior to the current indictment, and the current charges did not compromise his judicial integrity.”

Jamie Satterfield may be reached at 865-342-6308.