Disability fraud trial begins

Ralph B. Davis rdavis@civitasmedia.com

February 26, 2014

PIKEVILLE — Even before the disability fraud trial of former Martin Mayor Ruth Thomasine Robinson and two others began, seating arrangements gave some indication to how rest of the day would play out.

Robinson and her daughter, former Martin Community Center Director and Housing Authority of Martin Deputy Director Rita Whicker, took their seats on the left edge of a long, L-shaped row of seats reserved for defendants. Martin City Clerk Ethel Lee Clouse, meanwhile, took a perch on the far right side.

Six seats separated Robinson and Whicker from Clouse. So did dueling legal strategies.

The three women were charged in an October indictment that alleged they conspired to assist a fourth woman, Ginger Michelle Halbert, in concealing her earnings from the city, so that she could continue receiving disability benefits. Halbert was also charged, but pleaded guilty to reduced charges Friday in a deal with prosecutors.

According to the indictment, the city paid Halbert with checks written to her son, Jeremy Pack. Halbert would then cash the checks and keep the money.

“Publicly, she would hold herself out as a volunteer,” Asst. U.S. Attorney Kenneth Taylor said Monday during his opening statement. “But she was going to get a secret paycheck.”

Lawyers for Robinson and Whicker, Pikeville attorney Steve Owens and Kent Varney, respectively, countered during their opening statements, however, that Halbert and her son had both previously admitted to lying to authorities and could not be trusted now.

“Mr. Taylor has used the word, ‘honest,’ several times today,” Owens said. “You will see that the two people who are not on trial today were not honest …

“Mr. Taylor cannot help what the facts are. And the facts that are shown in this courtroom, I believe, will show that the two people who benefitted from this are now testifying to help themselves.”

Though not working with Owens, Varney drove the point home by pointing out that Pack originally told investigators that he had worked for the city of Martin, even though he was a student at the University of Kentucky at the time the paychecks were written, by providing phone and email tutoring and peer counseling to youths in the city’s after-school program. Six months later, Pack recanted that statement and told authorities that his mother had used his name, without his knowledge or permission, to obtain paychecks from the city.

“I do agree that Mr. Pack did lie,” Varney said. “The question is which story did he lie about — the story where he had a few minutes to talk to his mother, or the one where he had a few months to think over his story?”

Testifying later that day, Pack said he initially lied to investigators — at his mother’s direction — in order to protect her.

“I was nervous,” Pack said on the stand. “I was kind of surprised because two agents pulled me out of class and questioned me. And I wanted to protect my mother, because I love her.”

In his opening statement on behalf of Clouse, attorney Ned Pillersdorf took a different approach.

Describing his client as “a 68-year-old woman who, in 2006, started working for the city of Martin part-time for $11 an hour,” Pillersdorf said Clouse had no knowledge of the conspiracy and that she feels she was used by Robinson and Whicker.

“She was just given a list of people to write checks to,” Pillersdorf told the jury. “That’s what she did, and that’s all she did …

“My client’s position on this is that she’s angry.”

Whether Pillersdorf’s argument resonated with the jury will never be known, because as Taylor neared the end of presenting his case Tuesday, he announced the government would be dropping all charges against Clouse. The city clerk then testified as a witness for the prosecution, saying that her job duties included preparing checks from a list given to her by Robinson every Friday afternoon.