Editorial: A public disgrace
It was an ignominious end to a man who couldn’t sink much lower. There may be people in this area who still hold a degree of sympathy and compassion for Richard Baumgartner, but not many.
The former Knox County circuit judge was sentenced Wednesday to six months in federal prison for lying to cover up a scheme that provided him with painkillers and sex.
Baumgartner did express remorse at his sentencing in federal court, saying he was greatly shamed and regretted his actions. He was convicted in November of five counts of misprision of a felony. Authorities said he lied to cover up a conspiracy involving a defendant from his court, a woman who had supplied him with pills and sex. The woman had been a defendant in Baumgartner’s drug court.
There are certain positions of authority and public service in which we hold especially high standards for conduct. A man elected or appointed to preside over court is surely one of those positions. Baumgartner failed at that task. His irresponsible behavior led to court cases having to be retried. Hell, the man even engaged in sexual activity several times in his court chambers, all to feed an addiction to painkillers. No excuse. He knew he was an addict, he knew what he was doing to satisfy the addiction, and he knew it was wrong.
A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe found that starting around 2007 through his resignation in 2011, Baumgartner was using large amounts of painkillers while presiding over trials and had purchased drugs inside the courthouse.
“I will forever be remorseful for any disgrace I have brought to that profession,” Baumgartner said Wednesday in court. For “any disgrace”? That sounds as if he feels less remorse, than regret for getting caught.
Federal prosecutors requested that Baumgartner serve two years in prison on the federal charge. They rightfully said his actions seriously disrupted the Knox County court system, and nearly a half-dozen retrials were granted in cases he had presided over, including the murder trials in the torture slaying of a Knoxville couple. Baumgartner had asked for probation.
U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer managed to disappoint both sides with his sentence, but at least he ordered jail time. Some prosecutors fail to see the importance of holding public officials to a high standard and go along with wrist-slaps for official misconduct. We saw that in Sevier County when former county clerk Joe Keener was sentenced to 10 years probation and no jail time.
“Judges ought to be held to a higher standard,” Greer said. He’s right.
So Baumgartner will serve the entire six months; there is no time off for good behavior in the federal penal system. He has lost, forever, the public trust he once held. He can still live out his life in a positive, productive way. But he will not be able to win back his good name. That is gone forever.