- Associated Press - Friday, December 25, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - State. Rep. Joe Armstrong says he hopes the “truth comes out” when he goes to trial on federal fraud and tax evasion charges.

The Knoxville Democrat has a Feb. 23 trial date on charges in connection to an increase in the state’s cigarette tax.

A June 16 indictment accuses him of devising a scheme beginning in 2006 to profit from the cigarette tax increase planned by then-Gov. Phil Bredesen.

According to the charges, Armstrong borrowed $250,000 to buy tax stamps at the old 20-cent rate, and then sold them at a profit after lawmakers approved a 42-cent increase.

Armstrong is accused of failing to report more than $318,000 in income. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Armstrong told The Associated Press in a phone interview Thursday that he’s optimistic about the outcome of the trial.

“I pray that the truth comes out,” Armstrong said. “The truth is what’s going to vindicate me.”

He said he quietly stepped down from his position as House minority leader pro tempore in the House Democratic Caucus to concentrate on his tax issue.

Shortly after his indictment in June, he said he sent an email to fellow Democrats, which is in compliance with House Democratic Caucus rules calling for resignation from any leadership position upon indictment.

Despite the charges, Armstrong said he hopes to eventually return to the leadership post.

“At this point, the position is still open for me after I’m vindicated to come back,” he said.

House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley says Armstrong has the caucus’ support.

“He has the benefit of presumption of innocence and the caucus certainly wants to give him that,” Fitzhugh said. “He’s very optimistic about it, so we are too.”

The House Ethics Committee is likely to look into the allegations against Armstrong, but a meeting has not yet been scheduled.

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