The Tennessee Attorney General's Office, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the State Comptroller's Office jointly will investigate allegations of misconduct and financial improprieties in the 10th Judicial District, authorities said Monday.
A news release from Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper's office said the investigation was called "relative to issues that have been raised" in the district's four counties of Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press recently published a six-day investigative series that explored allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and misuse of public money, such as District Attorney Steve Bebb driving a seized drug car and claiming taxpayer reimbursement for travel in the vehicle, prosecutors withholding evidence in criminal cases and unchecked spending by the former 10th District Drug Task Force chief.
The attorney general will decide at the end of the probe "whether any further legal proceedings are warranted," according to the news release.
Moments before the release from the attorney general's office, Bebb faxed a statement to the Times Free Press stating that he had asked for appointment of a pro tem district attorney to "investigate any allegations of impropriety in this office, either by myself or any employee."
Two area lawmakers who had called for a TBI investigation welcomed the news Monday afternoon.
"I'm glad these agencies came together to get to the bottom of this," said state Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, who represents House District 22. "With an investigation called by the TBI and the comptroller's office, this will hopefully clear up questions from the community."
State Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said, "I appreciate the Attorney General's Office and the TBI understanding the serious nature of the allegations involving the DA in the 10th Judicial district. I think the majority of the citizens of Bradley, McMinn, Monroe, and Polk counties welcome this investigation."
State Senate and House leaders also have expressed concern about allegations in the newspaper's series. Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, called for the TBI to get involved in a Sunday story about the issue.
Monday, House Speaker Beth Harwell also issued a statement welcoming the three-agency probe.
"Any time we hear of alleged misuse of taxpayer dollars and other alleged unethical behavior, the allegations must be taken very seriously so as to protect the integrity of elected offices," Harwell said. "I am aware of the issues raised in the stories by the Times Free Press, and I have the utmost confidence that the proper authorities will conduct investigations and reach a solution. I believe in letting the system work, and if at some point that includes action by the Tennessee General Assembly, that will be explored at the proper time."
Watson, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has said the legislature could investigate the 10th District allegations and potentially could begin impeachment proceedings.
He said Friday he doesn't know how long the TBI/AG/comptroller's investigation might take -- anywhere from "one day to months down the road," he said.
Meanwhile, the 10th District Attorney General's Office will operate as usual, Wally Kirby, executive director of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, said in an email.
"General Bebb has always maintained that he would be happy for anyone to look at any of his files or the operation of his office," Kirby said.
"In that light we are glad that he has sent this request and look forward to an unbiased independent investigation by the Pro-tem. There should be some finality to this matter based upon the facts and not innuendo, half truths or politics."
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 ...