A Knox County jury on Friday agreed with the state: Former Trustee's Office employee Delbert Morgan was a "mystery," a "phantom" and a "ghost."
He rarely if ever worked. And yet he collected almost $152,000 in salary and benefits during the four years he was with the county's tax collection office.
The jury, after a two-week long trial, found the 58-year-old Grainger County businessman guilty of felony theft, a charge that is punishable by eight to 12 years in prison.
Morgan, who can also receive probation, will be sentenced on Oct. 23.
"He may have done a little work, but the state submits that it was bad from the beginning," prosecutor Bill Bright told the jury during closing arguments Friday.
Fellow prosecutor John Gill agreed.
After the verdict was read, he said that Bright "did an unbelievable job making a complicated case clear."
"We think justice was done," he added.
Morgan's attorney, Jeff Daniel, said he was "obviously disappointed" with the verdict but "appreciated the jury's hard work."
He said he'll begin preparing for sentencing. He also said "it's a possibility" that he will seek diversion for Morgan, meaning he could get have his record wiped clean in the future.
Morgan is the first of at least two other former Trustee's Office workers, including former long-time Trustee Mike Lowe, whom prosecutors say swindled taxpayers out of possibly $1 million between 2004 and 2008.
Ray Mubarak, another employee accused of collecting a paycheck and not actually working, and Lowe will go to trial at the end of the year.
Morgan, a former field auditor in the department, initially turned himself over to authorities in late April 2012 after a grand jury that met in secret for more than a year changed him with multiple counts of felony theft.
The grand jury at the time also indicted Lowe and Mubarak on a number of theft charges.
Morgan and Mubarak, also a field auditor, both abruptly resigned on March 8, 2008 – about the same time Fred Sisk, Lowe's successor, took over.
During Morgan's trial, dozens of witnesses, including many former and current employees in the Trustee's Office testified that they never saw Morgan. A few couldn't even identify him in the courtroom.
At one point, former Trustee Sisk also testified that he signed what he knew were bogus paychecks for Morgan, all in an effort to gain political favor and influence from Lowe.
Another employee, Sam Harb, also testified that he padded Morgan's timecards with overtime.
Neither has been charged.
The state also produced thousands of pages of cell phone records that placed Morgan out of the county, and, sometimes, out of the state during regular working hours.
For his part, Daniel, argued that his client was paid a salary to do a certain job – overseeing a program to get surplus county property back on the tax roll – and that he earned his keep.
He also said Morgan's role wouldn't bring him in contact with many of the witnesses.
His client, though, more than likely hurt his case.
On the stand, Morgan testified that he didn't know how much he earned, his work hours or whether he was paid an hourly rate or salary.
He also said he didn't work all the hours he claimed, but said his job was to help Lowe sell surplus county property to get it back on the tax roll.
During closing arguments, Daniel told the jury that although Morgan might have signed blank time sheets, he never filled them out. He said Harb held that responsibility, blaming him for the deception – not Morgan.
"Harb put times in there that he didn't think mattered," Daniel said.
He also said that cell phone records show Morgan called Lowe 1,200 times during his tenure with the county, suggesting that he must have been talking county business with him, since Lowe was his supervisor.
Further, Daniel noted that Lowe earned a combined $151,900 in salary and benefits during his time with the county but donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to his church.
"You steal money but then you go to church on Sunday and give three times that back? It doesn't make a lot of sense," he said.
Apparently, it did to the jury.