George Thacker, Rhea County's longest-serving county executive, pleaded guilty Thursday to a federal count of wire fraud stemming from his use of coronavirus stimulus funds to invest in cryptocurrency.
Thacker resigned his post Thursday, prior to his appearance in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga, according to his attorney, Lee Davis.
Thacker will face a hearing Sept. 22, when he could be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Charles E. Atchley Jr. to a maximum of 20 years in prison, $250,000 in fines and supervised release for up to three years, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Thacker, 59, of Spring City, appeared in federal court April 13 and waived his right to prosecution by indictment, filing an agreement to enter a guilty plea in the case, according to federal court documents.
Thacker followed through on the plea Thursday.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act is a federal law designed to provide emergency financial assistance to the millions of Americans suffering the economic effects brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other things, the act authorized billions of dollars in forgivable loans to small businesses through programs referred to as the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program, federal officials said in a news release on the plea. The funds from those programs were intended to ensure that small businesses suffering economic impacts related to the coronavirus pandemic could continue to operate and pay expenses, including their employees' wages, officials said.
Thacker, as owner of locally-based Thacker Corporation, pleaded guilty to obtaining two Paycheck Protection Program loans through the Small Business Administration and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, together totaling $665,600, according to court records.
According to court filings, Thacker falsely certified that he would use the funds to pay employees and for other operating expenses. Instead of using the money for its intended purpose, Thacker used the funds to line his own pockets by, among other things, purchasing cryptocurrency and funding his personal investment accounts, according to court documents.
The investigation was led by the U.S. Secret Service, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kyle J. Wilson represented the government in the case, officials said.
Thacker's guilty plea and resignation kick the upcoming Aug. 4 county executive race up a notch.
Rhea County Commission Chairman Jim Vincent by state law will assume the role of interim county executive, and he picked up qualifying papers to run for the county executive's seat Thursday after Thacker withdrew his qualifying papers, according to Rhea County Election Commission officials.
Administrator of Elections Tom Davis said Friday in a telephone interview that because of Thacker's resignation, the qualifying deadline was extended by law to April 21, which has already passed, and the deadline to withdraw from the election has been extended to noon Monday.
Thacker's exit means a free-for-all for the county executive's post when Rhea County voters go to the polls in August.
"We've got seven candidates for county executive," Davis said. Davis said while it is a remarkably large ballot, it isn't the largest.
"I know back in the '80s we had eight at one time," he said, noting he wasn't sure what the county's all-time record is.
So that means voters could see a ballot including candidates Brittany Fisher-Dean, Dustin Henderson, Jeremy Horton, Adam McRorie, Martin "Marty" Revis, District 9 County Commissioner Rusty Rogers and Vincent. Any of those who qualified by Thursday have until noon Monday to withdraw, so the ballot lineup could still change, officials said.
Vincent, interim county executive until Aug. 4, said Friday in a telephone interview that he considered Thacker a good man and friend and wouldn't have otherwise sought the county executive's post if not for Thacker's guilty plea and resignation.
"George has been a dear friend of mine for a long time and he's done a lot of good for Rhea County. I'm real sad for him but he made a mistake," Vincent said.
Thacker's attorney, Lee Davis, declined to comment on Thursday's court action but said April 15 that it was important to note the case against Thacker had nothing to do with his elected office.
"Once Mr. Thacker was approached by the government with these improprieties, he has cooperated fully with the Secret Service and the U.S. Attorney's Office in this investigation," Davis said in a phone interview.
Tom Davis said Friday Thacker was the county's longest-serving county executive, first elected to office in 2010.
According to court documents, Thacker was released from court on a $30,000 unsecured bond. He must remain actively employed, refrain from possessing a firearm or other dangerous weapons, refrain from the use of illegal drugs or excessive use of alcohol, immediately report any contact with police, including traffic stops, to his probation officer, submit to testing for prohibited substances and obey instructions from his probation officer, court documents stated.