One of the four men indicted as part of an extensive heavy equipment theft ring pleaded guilty and was sentenced in federal court Tuesday morning. Jason Habermel, 45, pleaded guilty to four counts of money laundering and received four years probation. However, while under oath, Habermel made some damning allegations against Union County, Kentucky Judge Executive Jody Jenkins, accusing the elected official of taking a cut of the proceeds from the sales of stolen equipment.
Habermel is the third of four defendants to plead guilty, joining the ranks of Andrew Elpers and Jordan Wedel. The remaining defendant, alleged kingpin Thomas Elpers, is scheduled to go on trial March 6th. The four men were indicted in April 2015.
The indictments stemmed from a multi-year, multi-state equipment theft ring allegedly run by the oldest Elpers and his son Andrew Elpers. The two men were initially arrested on state charges of burglary and theft. However, a few months later, a grand jury indicted the two men on federal charges of either possessing or transporting stolen motor vehicles across state lines. Andrew Elpers was also charged with one count of money laundering. Wedel, Andrew’s brother-in-law, was indicted on one count of possession of stolen motor vehicles. Habermel was indicted on four counts of money laundering, accusing of brokering the sale and delivery of heavy equipment to the Union County Kentucky Fiscal Court.
Flanked by his attorney, a contrite and humble Habermel admitted to his involvement in the scheme.
Habermel stated that he got involved in the theft ring through his longtime family friend Thomas Elpers, who reportedly stated that his son, Andrew, was behind on his child support. The elder Elpers told Habermel that the equipment was stolen, he said. Habermel told the court that he used the contacts he created through his employment at Terre Haute-based Garzo Tire to advertise the equipment.
According to records obtained by Eyewitness News, Habermel was already in a business relationship with the Union County Fiscal Court and Judge Executive Jody Jenkins before Habermel sold the equipment to the county.
Under oath, Habermel stated Andrew Elpers set a price on the stolen equipment that was to be bought by the Union County Fiscal Court. The price was set at just below $20,000 at Judge Jenkins’ direction, Habermel said. This was done to avoid triggering the state’s model procurement law which requires government agencies to publicly bid out purchases that exceed $20,000, according to Habermel’s testimony.
The county’s business transactions with Habermel began in early 2014 and abruptly stopped six months later. In all, the county purchased six pieces of equipment and two attachments totaling more than $100,000. According to purchasing records, every piece of equipment was purchased for less than $20,000 a piece. However, according to the leading heavy equipment trading websites, the equipment the county purchased commonly fetches anywhere from $40,000 to $50,000 a piece.
While there were more than a half dozen transactions between Habermel and the county, Habermel was only charged in connection with four of those transactions.
Habermel stated that he would take the checks signed by Judge Jenkins and cash them at a Planters Bank location in Union County. From there, Habermel stated he would take anywhere from $500 to $1500 from the proceeds as a ‘brokerage fee.’
Habermel wasn’t the only person taking a cut of the proceeds, according to his testimony.
While under oath, Habermel told the court that Judge Jenkins would ask for a ‘cost of doing business’ in Union County that would be anywhere from $2000 to $2500. Habermel’s attorney later characterized these transactions as ‘kick backs’ for Judge Jenkins. Habermel would also implicate Union County Clerk Trey Peak and local businessman Steve Eckels. As Eyewitness News has previously reported, Eckels has often received preferential treatment in terms of being awarded county contracts.
“I would pay Mr. Eckels, Jody Jenkins’ friend,” Habermel testified. “He would also receive monetary compensation for doing business in Union County as well as Trey Peak who is a county official as well. That was brought forth to me by them, saying that, ‘if we’re going to do business with you (Habermel), this is just the cost of business.”
Peak categorically denied the allegations Habermel made under oath at his sentencing hearing Tuesday. Jenkins did not return calls for comment, nor did Steve Eckels.
During the hearing, Habermel expressed remorse for his actions and apologized to his family, friends and his wife. He often became emotional, at one point telling the judge he was laying before his feet to ask for mercy. A family friend of Habermel said he has been up front and honest about his involvement in the theft ring and has used his mistakes as a teaching tool.
Habermel also apologized to the taxpayers of Union County for the hardships he has caused.
As a result of the FBI’s seizure of the stolen equipment and the subsequent denial of the county’s insurance claim, Union County taxpayers are out nearly $100,000.
The Kentucky division of the FBI is investigating the involvement of Jenkins and other in the equipment theft ring. Despite the investigation taking more than two years, no charges have yet been filed against any Union County official. However, law enforcement officials tell Eyewitness News that the investigation is ongoing.