published Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

County attorneys can take on outside work


by Dan Whisenhunt

Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor stays busy, but his schedule includes private legal work that isn't for the county.

Unlike Tennessee's three other major counties -- Knox, Davidson and Shelby, who require their full-time attorneys to work exclusively for county government -- Taylor and his two full-time assistants are allowed to take on outside cases.

Chattanooga recently barred its attorneys from taking outside cases, according to spokesman Richard Beeland and City Attorney Mike McMahan.

Taylor, who makes $143,099 a year as county attorney and has had the job since 1993, said handling the additional work has never been a problem. It's permitted by his contract as long as it doesn't conflict with his county duties.

"I have never heard any complaints about the availability or productivity about any of the attorneys in this office," Taylor said.

He said he and his assistants, David Norton and Mary Neill Southerland, work on outside cases from their county offices because "it's the only office we have."

Chancery Court records show all three attorneys have handled matters such as probate, guardianships and adoptions. Taylor also has handled a number of civil matters and he's listed as the attorney of a man who was recently fired from his job as the director of asset management at the Chattanooga Housing Authority.

Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey and County Commission Chairman Fred Skillern said they don't track the cases unrelated to county work that are taken on by the county attorneys.

Beeland said the city decided to ban outside work for its attorneys because it wanted to avoid possible conflicts. He also cited workloads.

"We're too big," Beeland said. "We need full-time representation and we're paying them to work full time. It doesn't make any sense for them to have cases outside that would possibly conflict with city business."

Ramsey said he trusts the county's attorneys to avoid such conflicts.

"It works," Ramsey said. "It's worked very well for a long time. I haven't seen one instance of conflict where it was a problem, and you know everybody has a choice of doing it the way they want to."

Allan Ramsaur, executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association, said attorneys are obligated to inform their clients of any potential conflict. He said many county and city attorneys in Tennessee are not full-time employees and also operate private practices.

Robin Roberts, the administrator of field services for the University of Tennessee's County Technical Assistance Service, said he didn't know of any state law forbidding Taylor or the other attorneys from taking additional work if it's permitted in their contracts.

ELSEWHERE IN TENNESSEE

In Hamilton, Taylor and his staff mostly cover general government. The sheriff's office has outside counsel and the schools system also has its own part-time outside counsel.

County Trustee Bill Hullander said he has a full-time tax attorney, James Davey, who is paid $87,500 annually and can take on outside work, provided it's not done on county time.

"I don't think there's anything in his contract to keep him from doing that," Hullander said. "I don't think he's even interested in it."

The attorneys for Shelby and Knox counties and Davidson, a metro government that includes the city of Nashville, also handle legal work for other county elected officials in addition to county general government. In Knox and Davidson, the county attorney's office also works for the school system.

Those offices also have a substantially larger number of full-time attorneys -- Knox has seven, Shelby has 15 and Davidson has 31.

Attorneys in metro Nashville-Davidson County and in Knox County said potential conflicts of interest are the primary reason they don't take outside cases.

Joe Jarret, the law director for Knox County, said he fully supports not letting county attorneys take on outside work.

"They did it that way because they wanted their law director to solely handle the affairs of the county with no other distractions," Jarret said.

Sue Cain, the law director for the Nashville-Davidson County metro government, said her office attorneys "are required to devote our full time and attention" to county business.

"If we've got time to be doing legal work we ought to be doing it for the government," Cain said.

Taylor said it is not his decision whether his office can handle legal work for other county constitutional offices. He said he was not aware that the full-time county attorneys in Davidson, Knox and Shelby counties did not take on other work.

"I'm just doing it as a service to the people I know and that ask me to help them," Taylor said.

As for the extra money, he said, "I appreciate the extra income."

Contact staff writer Dan Whisenhunt at dwhisenhunt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DWhisenhunt.

about Dan Whisenhunt...

Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...

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Allison12 said...

Mr. Whisenhunt what a wonderful research piece, and service to the public. Our City and County governments are so very corrupt, this scratches the surface.
If it were not bad enough that the entire Knowles Clan is running the County. Now, we learn that a group of 3 attorney are running a private practice using taxpayer funded offices and equipment, and they think this is ok. These attorney's running a private practice with taxpayer resources is ABSOLUTLY wrong is a complete theft and misuse of tax dollars. Shame on: Rubin Taylor, and the two assistant attorneys. "David Norton and Mary Neill Southerland, work on outside cases from their county offices because "it's the only office we have."

November 30, 2010 at 8:10 a.m.
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