Local state legislators say they back Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey's move to obtain documents from a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe of allegations against 10th District Attorney General Steve Bebb.
The effort comes after Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper last week released his long-awaited report on his requested TBI investigation on Bebb and alleged misconduct in the 10th Judicial District.
Kelsey, R-Germantown, said Wednesday he intends to bring a resolution to the committee next week, which if approved would require the TB I to release the file. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said he is backing the move.
In his report, Cooper criticized Bebb's office for poor judgment, mismanagement and deficient record keeping but said he found no prosecutable evidence against him on allegations of prosecutorial and financial misconduct, speaking untruthfully under oath and other offenses.
House and Senate members who represent Bradley County say voters back home are telling them they want the Legislature to take a look.
"I can't speak for the whole delegation, but I think we are all hearing from people in Cleveland and Bradley County who are asking us to continue asking questions," Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, said. "Again, if there is something there, let's take a look at it. If there is nothing there, then everything's going to be fine."
But he said "voters are asking the delegation to not look away and basically, we are here to do what they ask us to do and we're being asked directly."
In a statement, House Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, said the state Constitution places the responsibility on the Legislature of making decisions regarding any public official including the office of the district attorney.
Watson said "legislators owe it to the people of the 10th Judicial District to make a fully informed decision on the investigation of any elected official."
Once lawmakers "have had the opportunity to view the full investigation, a fair and informed decision will be made whether any further action is warranted against the district attorney," Watson said.
Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, is a member of Senate Judiciary.
"As chairman of the Judiciary Commitee, it was his [Kelsey's] decision to make," Bell said. "He and I have had very little conversation about it, but he feels very strongly that the Legislature does have a specific constitutional duty of oversight when it comes to matters in the judicial branch."
That oversight can take "the form of removal or impeachment when there is misconduct by a member of the judicial branch," Bell noted. "The chairman of the committee, apparently by requesting access to this file, just wants to be completely certain that there's been no misconduct by the district attorney or his office in our area."
Freshman Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who represents southern Bradley County, said he had "purposely stayed out of all that," noting initial Times Free Press articles detailing the allegations initially came out during his election.
"I told the other representatives up here I wanted to stay neutral on it because if for some reason we have to as a Senate Judiciary Committee, or whatever, take a position on those matters, I wanted to be in a position where I wasn't biased," he said.
But Gardenhire said he believes Kelsey's motion to give the TBI report to the committee "was appropriate. And then if it warrants taking action, we'll do so."
The allegations, many initially reported by the Times Free Press, included an unauthorized disclosure by Bebb of TBI investigative records to a 10th District Drug Task Force higher-up who had held his wife at home while firing his semi-automatic service rifle repeatedly through the ceiling.
Others included making false statements under oath and Bebb's alleged improper use of a Drug Task Force vehicle while filing for state travel reimbursements.
Speaker Ramsey told the Times Free Press he is "absolutely" supportive of the Senate looking at the TBI investigative report.
"We do have oversight, and we think the code's pretty clear on what we can and cannot do," he said.
The resolution notes that Article VI, Section 6 of the Tennessee Constitution "confers upon the General Assembly the exclusive authority to remove judges and attorneys for the state for cause."
Kelsey said he recognized Cooper decided there were no grounds for prosecuting Bebb after the four-month TBI investigation.
"Certainly we respect the attorney general's opinion and decision on this issue, and we just want out of an abundance of caution to make sure that we have full information in the Senate Judiciary Committee," he said.
As part of the panel's oversight role, Kelsey said, "we need to be ensuring everyone in the judicial branch is doing their job correctly."
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Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...
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 ...