published Sunday, August 12th, 2012

Records show history of impropriety in 10th Judicial District

PERSONAL GLIMPSE

Robert Steven Bebb

Age: 71

Hometown: Sweetwater, Tenn.

Background: Volunteered in African nation of Cameroon with Peace Corps, former public school teacher and coach. Earned bachelor of science degree at MTSU, law degree at UT-Knoxville. Admitted to the bar in 1974, became an assistant district attorney in 1975.

Elected positions: Criminal Court judge 1982-2005. Defeated Republican Steve Crump, 19,088 to 17,141, in 2006 election for district attorney. Bebb has said he won’t run for re-election when the term ends in 2014.

Salary: $138,576 a year

Also see today's other articles:

A litany of cases

Truth, rights suffer in 10th District, defense attorneys

Monday

A friend to the police.

Tuesday

Some former officers cry foul.

Wednesday

Parties, perks and pricey dining.

Thursday

Questions swirled around drug chief.

Friday

How drug agents brought in millions.

Shakedowns, ripoffs, lying in court and manipulating the justice system are staples of television drama. But when it’s the good guys allegedly offering false testimony, trampling on defendants’ rights in court cases where lives are on the line and misspending taxpayer money, who’s going to come to the rescue?

The Times Free Press spent more than seven months investigating allegations common in legal and law enforcement circles in the 10th Judicial District of Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties.

Among them: Under District Attorney General R. Steven Bebb, the prosecutor’s office botched important cases through ineptness or misconduct, misused taxpayer money and played favorites in criminal prosecutions.

The 10th District’s drug task force, which supports itself almost entirely from cash and property seized in drug cases, has been involved in enough questionable dealings that two state legislators are working on laws to rein it in.

The newspaper inspected financial documents, state records, lawsuits, court testimony and rulings, and interviewed numerous witnesses, attorneys and current and former law enforcement officers. The paper looked into allegations of Bebb and staffers participating in or condoning misconduct, abusing defendants’ civil rights, speaking untruthfully under oath, spending money in violation of state regulations and other potential improprieties.

In a lengthy interview in late July, Bebb defended his office and staff.

“Are we perfect? No. Do we make mistakes? Yes. Do we try to correct mistakes when we make them? Yes,” Bebb said.

“I have given (my staff) one direction and one direction only, and that is to do their level best to do justice in every case. ... My greatest fear is going to trial in a case and convicting an innocent man or woman.”

--

From his Cleveland, Tenn., headquarters, Bebb and his staff prosecute misdemeanor and felony crimes in the district’s four counties.

Some say that, by holding in his hand the power to indict — or not — Bebb is the most powerful elected official in the district.

Most district attorneys work their way up to the position. Bebb did the opposite — after more than 23 years as a 10th District Criminal Court judge, he stepped down from the bench to run for district attorney in 2006.

During a case last year in U.S. District Court, a defense attorney gently teased Bebb about that, saying he knew of only one other man, Knoxville’s Randy Nichols, who left the bench to become a DA.

“I was crazy. I don’t know what his excuse was,” Bebb riposted.

In person, Bebb — he likes to be called “Coach” rather than the traditional “General” — can be genial, chatty and humorous. When he ran for election in 2006 as a Democrat, strong support from district law enforcement officers helped him defeat Republican Steve Crump after incumbent Jerry Estes retired. But critics also say he’s hot-tempered and mercurial. Allegations in lawsuits and court records accuse him of vindictive retaliation when things don’t go his way.

In the July interview, Bebb said he believed the newspaper’s investigation was spurred by a former Cleveland police detective who was fired after Bebb blamed him for a collapsed murder case in the high-profile 1999 Valentine’s Day triple slaying in Cleveland.

  • photo
    A district attorney’s requisition form specifies the spending of more than $1,200 for a 2008 office annual meeting and Christmas dinner. According to the form, the money came from the Economic Crime Fund, which is intended only for law enforcement purposes. Meanwhile, hotel receipts show that DTF Director Mike Hall’s credit card was used to charge thousands of dollars in hotel stays in and around the 10th District for himself and/or another agent, Angie Gibson.

According to the results of research and interviews done by the Times Free Press:

* Bebb and some of the people he oversaw routinely used public property and money as if it were their own — from cars to phones to cash.

Bebb admitted to the Times Free Press that he accepted state mileage reimbursements while driving a seized drug car beginning in late 2009, but said he didn’t know it was seized and stopped driving it when he found out.

Tennessee has very specific rules about who may use vehicles seized in drug cases, and district attorneys aren’t on the list. (see below video of Bebb getting out of the car)

Video of Steve Bebb getting out of car

State auditors in July reported that Assistant District Attorney Dallas Scott had charged more than $4,000 in gas for his personal vehicle since January 2010 without documenting how much of his mileage was for state business.

And records from the McMinn County finance office show that taxpayers and motorists were providing perks for other DA and drug task force personnel, from meals to hotel stays to Christmas parties.

* Bebb also is chairman of the board of the 10th District Drug Task Force, which brought in more than $5 million between 2007 and 2010, mostly from stopping drivers on Interstate 75 and seizing cash, vehicles and other assets, according to Department of Safety records.

The Times Free Press found that Department of Safety files show numerous cases where drug task force agents took large sums of cash from drivers on Interstate 75 without ever charging them with crimes and sometimes without finding drugs.

In many other cases, drug charges brought by the task force were dismissed in court, but the force got to keep the cash, cars and property seized in the stops, Department of Safety and drug task force records show. Sometimes the DTF charged motorists fees based on the vehicles’ value to get their cars back.

State law allows such forfeitures, but some state lawmakers, attorneys and civil libertarians question whether they are appropriate. Some see Tennessee’s forfeiture laws and their lack of built-in oversight as an invitation to corruption and abuse of civil rights.

* The money drug task force agents took off the highway paid for them to travel the country for law enforcement conferences and training. Task force financial records show that the task force — with 14 to 16 agents — spent at least $100,000 between 2008 and 2010 on hotels, meals, mileage and airfare. They took dozens of trips to locations as close as Opryland and Gatlinburg and as far as Washington, D.C., Sandestin, Fla., and Charleston, S.C.

  • photo
    The tenure of 10th District Drug Task Force director Mike Hall included allegations of improper spending and questions about drug use. Here, Hall makes an arrest.
    Shane McMillan
    enlarge photo

* Former DTF Director Mike Hall’s drug task force credit card was used to charge more than $50,000 between 2008 and 2010 on meals for himself, task force members and guests at local restaurants, as well as gifts, flowers and goodies for co-workers and office secretaries, credit card receipts show.

He charged thousands of dollars more on the card for hotel stays in and around the 10th District for himself and/or a another agent, Angie Gibson, between 2008 and 2010, according to charge receipts.

State auditors said much of Hall’s spending could not be documented as legitimate task force expenses.

In an interview, Assistant District Attorney Stephen Hatchett said the DA’s office asked state auditors to conduct a forensic audit when Hall’s spending came to light. He said auditors never said any of the money had been “stolen by Mike Hall or anyone else at the drug task force.”

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said it is not investigating the personnel or operations of the 10th Judicial District.

FBI spokeswoman Stacie Bohanan in the Knoxville office gave the standard response when asked if there is a federal investigation under way.

"We won’t confirm or deny the existence of an investigation as a matter of policy,” Bohanan said. “Any time anyone calls with an allegation, we are certainly, as a matter of due diligence, going to follow that up.”

* Bebb gave Hall a pass on allegations of making personal calls on his task-force-owned cellphone — a charge that Hall himself used to fire another task force agent, court records allege.

When questioned in a court case last year about Hall using task force vehicles to pull his boat or to haul sound equipment for a political rally, Bebb was nonchalant.

" I really didn’t see anything wrong with it. He’s the [task force] director,” Bebb said, according to a transcript of his deposition in the court case.

Tennessee law says state employees may not actively campaign for a political candidate or use state-owned equipment for campaign activities or for personal use. Bebb argues that the drug task force, although organized under the district attorney general, is not a state agency.

* When allegations arose that Hall might be illegally using drugs, Bebb publicly called for a TBI investigation and a special prosecutor. But records in a lawsuit allege that he also tried to indict a Cleveland police detective who looked into Hall’s conduct, and later helped get the detective fired.

* Hall’s case isn’t the only one where Bebb turned a blind eye to apparent wrongdoing by law officers in the 10th District, TBI files and newspaper archives suggest.

In numerous cases, Bebb shelved TBI investigations into allegations of officer misconduct without taking action, state records and newspaper archives show. He routinely declined to charge cops for behavior that would have landed civilians in jail — from abusing prescription pills and beating up spouses, to shooting up a neighborhood with an assault rifle, to driving drunk and wrecking a vehicle with methamphetamine ingredients inside, records show.

Law officers who crossed or angered Bebb, however, have alleged in court documents that they were targets of retaliation ranging from public lectures to firings to attempted indictment.

* Court records and judges’ opinions contain repeated allegations and findings that 10th District prosecutors withheld evidence, tolerated and even participated in law enforcement misconduct, and violated judicial orders and defendants’ rights in criminal cases.

In four high-profile cases, court records alleged that prosecutors’ and investigators’ errors or mishandling had one of two results: Either people’s lives and freedom possibly were imperiled by tainted evidence and poor procedures, or defendants who may have committed vicious and violent crimes could not be held to account.

The attorney for Jessica Kennedy in the 2010 shooting death of Monroe County Election Commissioner Jim Miller has filed repeated motions alleging prosecutors withheld crucial evidence — even the location of the crime — for months in the case, impairing her right to a fair trial. Her murder trial is set to begin this week.

Late last month, a judge dismissed murder charges against Monroe County resident John Edward Dawson in the 2006 killing of Sweetwater businessman Troy Green. The judge acted after a witness testified he had been coached by a Monroe County detective to lie in the case to implicate Dawson.

A McMinn man was accused of raping and shaking his 14-month-old daughter and charged with murder in 2003 based on a confession coerced by detectives and a botched autopsy, according to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. The assistant prosecutor under Bebb wouldn’t accept defendant Mitchell Delashmitt’s offer to plead guilty to a lesser charge than murder and child rape in the years before his 2010 trial, Delashmitt’s attorney said. But when the doctor who performed the autopsy couldn’t testify because his license had been suspended for drug problems, the state offered and Delashmitt accepted just such a plea.

Two of three murder trials in the 1999 Valentine’s Day triple slaying in Cleveland ended in mistrials in 2010.

The jury deadlocked in defendant Twanna Blair’s case. But the judge ended defendant Michael Younger’s trial after one assistant DA withheld evidence and another disobeyed a judicial order, according to court documents and judicial opinions.

Criminal Court Judge Amy Reedy ordered both to report to Tennessee’s Board of Professional Responsibility, the lawyers’ disciplinary agency. Last month the board filed a disciplinary petition against Assistant District Attorney Paul Rush.

Bebb has blamed the collapse of the Younger case on phone calls between Reedy and the former Cleveland police detective, Duff Brumley, who put the case together.

Brumley is one of at least two people who have filed complaints with the Board of Professional Responsibility against 10th District prosecutors during Bebb’s tenure.

Brumley filed a complaint in 2010 after Bebb publicly blamed him for the collapse of the Younger murder prosecution. In the complaint, Brumley also alleged that Bebb’s office retaliated against him for checking up on allegations that then-DTF Director Mike Hall was abusing prescription drugs.

Weissenberg BPR complaint and TBPR response
Weissenberg BPR complaint and TBPR response

Mark Weissenberg, a former Spanish-language translator in Bradley General Sessions Court, filed a complaint in 2011 against assistant district attorneys Stephen Hatchett and Brooklyn Martin, alleging retaliation over the use of interpreters in court. (See complaint and response online)

The board declined to take up either complaint, records show.

Bebb has a long history in the 10th District’s justice system as an assistant district attorney, Criminal Court judge and now district attorney. Many people in legal and law enforcement circles have known him for decades.

Asked for their opinions, most people the Times Free Press spoke to sounded much like a veteran lawman who didn’t want his name used.

He said Bebb was “great” as an assistant district attorney and judge. But, he said, “I’ve never been so disappointed in anything in my life as I have been in him since he was elected DA.”

Bebb denied misconduct by his office and defends his assistants.

“I don’t try to control what they do,” he said. “If you have a case and you know your case and you talk to your witnesses and you talk to the detectives, or police officers, talk to the lawyer on the other side and you make a decision what’s right, I will not second-guess it.”

He added, “I am a lucky, lucky man to have the assistants that I’ve got.”

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Subscribe to Judy on Facebook at Facebook.com/JudyCTFP

about Judy Walton...

Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...

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