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Judge concerned about plea deal in Alabama junior college probe


A federal judge refused to accept a plea agreement with an Auburn businessman who has become a major witness in the criminal investigation of Alabama’s two-year college system.

At a hearing Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn said she’s not convinced the deal’s maximum six-month prison sentence for Tim Turnham and nearly $1 million in payments is appropriate for such a high-profile corruption case.

“I’m saying the government is giving him a very good deal,” Blackburn said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Hart said if the judge doesn’t accept the deal, he’s willing to prosecute Turnham and move on to other targets.

Defense attorney Joe Dean told the judge he wants more time to discuss options with his client.

The judge’s refusal to accept the offer Wednesday doesn’t prevent her from reviewing it again later and accepting it. The two sides could also try to reach a new deal, or Turnham could go to trial.

Turnham, who runs the family-owned Alabama Contract Sales in Auburn, has agreed to plead guilty to an obstruction of justice charge and to help prosecutors. He admitted in the plea agreement to overcharging two-year colleges to give former Chancellor Roy Johnson and others more than $83,000 in kickbacks and other payments during the past 11 years.

Three people have been convicted in the ongoing investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in Birmingham, and a fourth is awaiting trial. Prosecutors have not charged Johnson, but have filed a lien on his $1.3 million home in Opelika, claiming he used kickbacks from people who had contracts with the two-year college system.

Information from: The Birmingham News

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