published Friday, February 28th, 2014

Ex-state senator pleads guilty to felony theft

Former state Sen. Eric Stewart, a candidate in 2012 for the 4th District U.S. Congress seat, pleaded guilty Thursday to a felony theft charge in Winchester, Tenn.

The plea before Circuit Court Judge Curtis Smith was entered under terms of judicial diversion, according to 12th Judicial District Attorney General Mike Taylor.

Stewart pleaded guilty to a count of theft of property $500 to $1,000, a class E felony. He was sentenced to two years of supervised probation and 100 hours of community service and ordered to pay court costs and $750 in restitution to victims Don and Bonnie Plattenburg, who own a contracting firm in Franklin County.

Stewart's attorney, Chattanooga lawyer Lee Davis, said Stewart paid the restitution before leaving the Franklin County Courthouse on Thursday.

"I think it was a fair resolution offered by District Attorney Mike Taylor," Davis said. "Eric fully accepted responsibility for the mistake he made, paid the $750 restitution and has been granted diversion by the court which will allow him to have it dismissed and expunged off his record.

"I think significant in this is that when he was first asked about the $750 premium payment [by the Plattenburgs], he admitted it and owned up to not turning it in," Davis said.

Stewart was charged Nov. 4, 2013, with theft over $500 and committing a fraudulent insurance act during the period between Nov. 22, 2009, and Nov. 4, 2013, Franklin County court records show.

The Plattenburgs, who own a construction company in Estill Springs, Tenn., had sought workman's compensation insurance through Stewart's independent insurance agency, but rather than purchase the policy for the Plattenburgs' contracting company he used the money himself.

The Plattenburgs wound up getting fined for not having the insurance and Stewart paid the $1,125 fine so the Plattenburgs wouldn't find out about it, Taylor said of proof offered in court Thursday.

But the Plattenburgs got suspicious and asked Stewart about it and he admitted to them that he didn't get them the policy.

Stewart, a former Franklin County commissioner, served as House representative for the 14th District between 2008 and 2012. In November 2012, he ran on the Democrat ticket for the 4th District U.S. Congress seat against Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DeJarlais, but lost his bid for the seat.

The Times Free Press has reported on some of Stewart's financial problems.

He was sued by Citibank in 2011 for failing to pay on nearly $5,000 in credit card debt, Franklin County General Sessions Court records show. And the U.S. Internal Revenue Service hit Stewart with two property liens totaling nearly $25,000 in 2002 and 2011 for not paying his personal and business taxes on time.

The liens have been resolved, Franklin County Register of Deeds records show.

On Thursday, Davis said that Stewart's plea and diversion will have no impact on his ability to seek political office.

"This is a disposition where there is no conviction. It does not impact your civil rights the way a conviction would," Davis said.

But Davis pointed out that if Stewart violates the terms of the diversion, the guilty plea would stand as a felony conviction.

"It's a strong incentive to do your community service and pay your court costs and restitution," he said.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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