published Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

Some DA practices run afoul of state rules

Bebb Reimbursement
Bebb Reimbursement

Ask law enforcement folks in the 10th Judicial District about District Attorney Steve Bebb’s ride and they all say the same thing — a gray 2007 Impala.

Video of Steve Bebb getting out of car

That car was seized by the 10th Judicial District Drug Task Force in October 2008 from a driver hauling a kilo of cocaine. Task force records of vehicle seizures between 2006 and 2010 list the Malibu as “in use by Steve Bebb.”

But under state law and Tennessee attorney general’s opinions, Bebb isn’t supposed to have the keys. His job doesn’t come with a car, and state law limits how vehicles seized in criminal cases may be used. (See video online.)

State records show that Bebb also has collected nearly $3,000 in taxpayer-paid reimbursements for gas, maintenance and wear and tear during the period in which multiple sources say he regularly drove the car.

In an interview, Bebb admitted driving the car and collecting reimbursements, but said he thought he had permission and that he had not been “unjustly enriched” from the reimbursement checks.

State law also says that money collected from forfeitures and fines “may not be used to supplement the salaries of a public employee or law enforcement officer.”

But financial records from the McMinn County Finance Office show that Bebb, some staffers and drug task force members spent money from task force funds and from the DA’s Economic Crime Fund for all kinds of things, including Christmas parties and annual meetings for the DA’s office, as well as meals and motels for task force members that could not be documented as legitimate task force expenses.

BEHIND THE WHEEL

Under state regulations, Bebb could drive his personal car on district attorney business and be reimbursed by a per-mile formula, or he could submit claims for whatever he paid for gas and maintenance in a state car if he were authorized to drive one.

Witnesses say Bebb began driving the Malibu in late 2009 and drove it at least through January of this year. Tennessee law says seized vehicles may be used only for very specific law enforcement purposes and for a limited time.

“Seized vehicles cannot be used for administrative purposes or support of enforcement efforts,” said Blake Fontenay, spokesman for the Tennessee Secretary of State’s Office. “Seized property should not be used for personal benefit and should be used for drug enforcement and or drug education purposes as required by law.”

In an interview in July, Bebb defended using the vehicle.

“Before I ever opened the door of that vehicle, we asked the comptroller, and the comptroller — and I don’t know if they’d admit this today or not — said, ‘Hey, it’s customary for DAs to drive drug task force cars.’”

John Morgan, who was state comptroller when Bebb was elected, said in an email that Bebb “must have misunderstood what he was told.” He noted that “the law restricts the use of forfeited property to use in drug enforcement activities,” and referred the Times Free Press to the comptroller’s office.

Current employees of the Comptroller’s Division of Local Government Audit said in an July 26 email that “We are not aware of anyone in the comptroller’s office that would have given the approval to utilize a seized vehicle in a manner other than is prescribed by statute.”

The email noted that “some DAs have from time to time driven confiscated vehicles claiming that they were driven for drug enforcement purposes.” It cited state law and attorney general’s opinions that seized vehicles may only be used for drug enforcement and education programs and for a limited period of time.

Bebb also said he wasn’t driving a “state” car, but one owned by the 10th Judicial drug task force. His office has contended in a lawsuit that the task force is not a state agency. A Bradley County chancellor this year ruled differently, and Tennessee law (TCA 8-42-101 (c)) defines as a state employee “a person designated by the district attorney general of each judicial district as a member of a judicial district task force relating to the investigation and prosecution of drug cases.”

Bebb said he didn’t know the car he was driving had been seized and, when he found out, he turned the car in.

Asked when that was, Bebb said he couldn’t remember.

“Whenever they told me I shouldn’t be driving it. I don’t keep up with dates, OK?”

Asked about state reimbursement, Bebb said he was short one attorney in the office and he was traveling the district handling court cases.

“I did charge state mileage during the time I was driving around to these different counties to prosecute drug task force cases,” he said.

He also said two people in his office were cheating on mileage. He said one had been filling out his mileage reimbursement forms, and unbeknownst to him, been “cheating on my behalf.” He said he called the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference and reported he had improperly claimed mileage, then he drove his personal vehicle for a year and didn’t file for any reimbursement.

Asked when that was, Bebb said, “You’re asking a 71-year-old man to remember. I don’t remember the dates.”

He said he doesn’t know whether he had claimed any mileage since Dallas Scott was hired as the drug task force prosecutor in January 2010 and took over the job of driving to various counties for drug task force cases.

“If I did, it was because I had to do something for them, because he was just starting,” Bebb said.

The state’s Open Government website reports Bebb claimed at least $2,859 in reimbursement from October 2009 through March 2012. The reimbursement forms don’t include identifying information on the vehicle being driven.

“I have worn out nine cars on behalf of the state of Tennessee,” Bebb said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been unjustly enriched by that.”

OTHER PERKS

Scott isn’t driving a state-owned car, but taxpayers have been buying his gas.

The 2011 state audit of the drug task force, issued in July, said Scott used a task force gas card to charge more than $4,000 in fuel for business use of his personal vehicle, but had not filled out state-required forms documenting his business mileage.

In a July interview, Scott said that, after he was hired as the drug task force prosecutor, he turned in one mileage reimbursement form, then was called to the office.

“They said, ‘We consider you to be an employee here just like everybody else,’ and they gave me a gas card,” Scott said.

The state comptroller’s office said drug task force special agents don’t have to fill out the mileage forms because their vehicles are owned by the task force.

Scott said he travels the four-county district on task force cases. He said no one ever told him before the audit that he needed to document business use of his personal vehicle.

The state Department of Finance and Administration sets travel guidelines for state employees. The department’s spokeswoman, Lola Potter, said Scott’s use of the gas card didn’t conform to the guidelines.

“In a state agency, department budget folks have to sign off on any reimbursement, and we do not issue gas cards for personal vehicles,” Potter said in an email. “Gas cards are assigned to state vehicles, not people.”

If Scott was handed a gas card, “that’s something the task force chose to do — again, we don’t issue gas cards to people, but assign them to vehicles the state owns.

“The commissioner of [Finance and Administration], for example, drives his own vehicle instead of a state car, and he can get reimbursed for job-related expenses, but his vehicle could not be assigned a gas card unless we bought it. Since it’s a BMW SUV, that won’t likely happen,” Potter said.

But Bebb and Scott both said Scott worked for the drug task force, not the district attorney’s office, until July of this year when he transferred to the DA’s office.

PARTY PAYMENTS

Bebb also paid for some Christmas parties and district attorney’s annual meetings out of task force travel accounts and his own office’s Economic Crime Fund, McMinn County Finance Office records show.

The drug task force’s travel account was tapped Dec. 11, 2009, for two events at the Robert E. Lee Restaurant in Athens, Tenn.: $1,507 for the DA’s annual meeting and $1,005 for the drug task force’s similar event.

The Economic Crime Fund comes from fines imposed on people convicted of specific economic crimes, such as writing bad checks. It may be spent only for very specific purposes “directly related to fulfilling the prosecutorial duties of the district attorney general,” according to Tennessee law.

Those purposes include hiring, equipping and training staff to recognize and combat economic crimes; hiring expert witnesses or paying for official travel in the prosecution of economic crimes. There’s no mention in the law of Christmas parties or annual meetings.

But the account also was tapped for $1,217.50 payable to the Robert E. Lee in December 2008 for the “DA Office Annual Meeting/Christmas Dinner,” according to the invoice.

In December 2009, the fund paid $1,435 to the Open Door Restaurant for the “DA office annual meeting.” (See copy of invoice online.)

Bebb said that his office budget doesn’t have a category to pay for Christmas parties.

He said the 10th District’s Economic Crime Fund was only $3,000 to $4,000 when he was elected, but has been “built up” since then. For the most part, the money has been used to send office personnel and even police officers for specialized training because “nobody [else] would pay for it.”

“I have never misused the Economic Crime Fund, to my knowledge,” Bebb said.

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

Tennessee laws “clearly and unambiguously authorize the board of directors of a drug task force to use fines and the proceeds of forfeitures of appearance bonds and seized and forfeited assets for drug enforcement and education programs of the district. ... Such funds may not be used to supplement the salaries of public employee or law enforcement officers, even if such person is working in a drug enforcement or drug education program.”

— Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper, January 2012

“Official misconduct is a crime. If one abuses their authority as a judge, as a D.A., as any officer, [it is] official misconduct. Officers can commit official misconduct.”

— Steve Bebb, Oct. 21, 2011, U.S. District Court, Knoxville

“I do believe that people ought not use DTF property or state property for their own personal use.”

— Steve Bebb, April 15, 2011

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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