It's a sad irony on the state of justice in Tennessee that it takes a dedicated newspaper reporter to dig up and document myriad instances of apparent misconduct and abuse of office by a district attorney general and his minions in four counties before the state's higher officials can raise themselves to launch their own investigation. Still, it's gratifying that the troubling findings by this paper's Judy Walton have been acknowledged and will now be the subject of an investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, State Attorney General Robert Cooper's office and the state Comptroller.
At issue is the conduct and oversight of District Attorney General Steve Bebb, head of Tennessee's 10th Judicial District, which covers Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties. Walton's seven-month probe and week-long series this month, based on a hundred interviews and scores of documents obtained under the state's open records acts, revealed a range of alarming findings suggesting apparent financial improprieties, prosecutorial misconduct, cronyism and potential corruption.
Bebb's office has authority over the 10th District Drug Task Force, which brought in more than $5 million between 2007 and 2010 from operations mainly conducted along Interstate 75, a major eastern conduit for drug trafficking. Some of the cash and drugs and many of the vehicles were impounded in cases where there were no arrests, or where the defendants were freed while their vehicles and money were kept.
These operations raise issues of due process and potential corruption. They also involve the profligate use of more than $100,000 for travel, expensive dining and partying by some of the agents. Bebb further allowed the head of the task force to spend more than an additional $50,000 on a drug task force credit card, for meals, travel and often for motels within the 10th Judicial District where he and a female agent took rooms. Bebb himself allegedly took one of the impounded vehicles for his personal use for years without authority to do so, and drew several thousand dollars in improper reimbursements for gas.
Prosecutorial miscues and apparent misconduct in Bebb's office marred three high-profile murder cases in District 10, leading to findings by trial and appellate judges against Bebb's office for withholding, coercing or fabricating evidence. No investigations or penalties were known to come from the offenses cited by the judges, nor is it known whether they filed reports with the state's watchdog judiciary panel.
In other circumstances, Bebb allegedly refused to bring charges against police officers for egregious misconduct and violent actions that would typically would have landed ordinary citizens in jail. He also failed to bring charges against top officers in the Cleveland Police Department for perjury in federal court in a lawsuit against their police department.
These and other apparent improprieties were, in some instances, known by the TBI and by Bebb and assistant district attorneys under him. Yet it took Walton's reporting and resulting concern by some of the district's state lawmakers to ignite interest and, at last, an investigation. Indeed, it may be some state lawmakers' interest in considering an impeachment proceeding against Bebb that finally prompted state authorities to coalesce behind an official investigation.
Bebb announced Monday that he would ask for appointment of a pro tem district attorney to investigate allegations of impropriety in his office. The District Attorneys General Conference, Bebb's peer group, unfortunately appointed a former judge and state attorney general, Paul Summers, who has been a longtime political acquaintance of Bebb, who also is himself a former a trial judge.
In these circumstances, State Attorney General Cooper, also an acquaintance of Bebb, must avoid appointing yet another member of their judicial inner circle to help lead the investigation of Bebb's office. That would just further undermine the already compromised credibility of the state agencies' investigation of a peer.
The prior laxity of the three state agencies in proceeding with an investigation is troubling enough. It's as if higher public officials are so politically and fraternally intertwined that they turn a blind eye to their oversight duties unless and until apparent offenses attract enough media and public attention to coerce them to act. We can only hope the TBI, the State Attorney General's office, and the Comptroller's office will not be so derelict in the future.