ALBERTVILLE, Ala. (AP) - A judge reluctantly let a former tax official plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge and avoid jail time Monday despite lingering questions over millions of dollars in property tax errors in a north Alabama county.
Circuit Judge Howard Hawk approved a deal in which former Marshall County Revenue Commissioner Joey Masters pleaded guilty to a state ethics charge that accused him of taking an unspecified amount of money from an office account.
A state audit found $17 million errors in tax assessments under Masters and a separate taxpayer lawsuit accuses him of reducing assessments for relatives and friends by as much as $20 million. However, Assistant Attorney General Bill Lisenby Jr. outlined only $740 in office funds that Masters admitted taking from a cash drawer and then repaying in 2012.
Under questioning from Hawk, Lisenby said prosecutors couldn't prove any crime involving the broader allegations of bogus or mistaken tax assessments totaling in the millions.
"I'm somewhat staggered by you saying `This is it,' but if you say `This is it,' I'm taking your word for it," said Hawk.
Lisenby said problems uncovered in state audits do not always involve crimes, which have a higher standard of proof.
The judge previously refused to accept Masters' guilty plea, saying he wanted to know exactly what the charges involved.
Masters, 51, must pay a fine and assessment of $1,100 plus court costs; perform 200 hours of community service; and spend two years on probation. He declined comment after the hearing.
Masters served as Marshall County's tax assessor during much of the 1990s, and he was first elected revenue commissioner in 2002 after voters decided to create the position by combining the posts of tax assessor and tax collector. Last elected to a six-year term in 2008, Masters' term would have expired this year.
Masters, a Democrat turned Republican, resigned when he was indicted in November. He retains his state pension, voting rights and ability to seek office again because the charge wasn't a felony.
Outside court, defense attorney Dan Warnes said no one knows exactly how much Masters used from the office cash drawer because no one kept a record and he took money from the fund multiple times.
Warnes said Masters never tried to hide what he was doing and repaid every penny, making it impossible for prosecutors to prove he had intent to commit a crime.
"That is why it was a misdemeanor," he said.
With the criminal case finished, a civil lawsuit accusing Masters of costing the county as much as $20 million in revenues through improper tax assessments can move forward, said Randy Beard, an attorney who sued on behalf of a taxpayer.
The lawsuit claims Masters purposely decreased the values of hundreds of pieces of property to reduce the tax bills of friends, political allies, relatives and influential citizens while serving as revenue commissioner.
County Commission Chairman James Hutcheson has denied that Masters' actions cost taxpayers anything close to $20 million since the total budget in the rural county of 95,000 people is less than $23 million.
"The county couldn't survive if those numbers were real," Hutcheson said in an interview last month.
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