published Saturday, August 24th, 2013

Harwell cautions board in Bebb complaint, at least third filed by lawmakers reviewing investigation

 Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell
Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Beth Harwell's statement

As a result of the recommendation of the bipartisan House panel appointed to review the investigation of District Attorney General Steve Bebb (10th Judicial District), Speaker Harwell has submitted a complaint to the Board of Professional Responsibility.

Speaker Harwell appointed the House panel to review the TBI files, the Attorney General’s report, and other accounts the panel found were relevant to these matters. The bipartisan panel, consisting of three Democrats and three Republicans, having reviewed the information as directed, has recommended that certain allegations warrant continued review.

Attorneys licensed to practice law in the State of Tennessee are bound to follow specific and comprehensive ethical rules governing their conduct. These rules are to ensure ethical conduct, maintain the public’s trust, and the integrity of our judicial system. The Board of Professional Responsibility is charged, by statute, with the duty to investigate all allegations of unethical conduct by attorneys. The Board was created and funded to be investigators and staff attorneys who are experts in the field of ethical behavior by attorneys. The next appropriate step in this process has been to report the allegations to the Board of Professional Responsibility for a thorough, prompt investigation and appropriate action.

After reviewing the findings and actions of the Board of Professional Responsibility, the 108th General Assembly will then take such actions as they feel are warranted and necessary to restore the public trust in the 10th Judicial District Attorney General’s Office.

Several entities have reviewed aspects of this situation. The Speaker recognizes their scope has been confined legally to areas within their purview. She wishes to thank all parties who have worked so hard to move this difficult matter to this position: the State Comptroller, State Attorney General, and the bipartisan House panel, and Chairman Tony Shipley.

Tennessee's House speaker has joined lawmakers calling for the state's attorney ethics board to investigate 10th Judicial District Attorney General Steve Bebb, and has warned she'll be watching to see what happens.

Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said in a statement she filed a complaint asking the Board of Professional Responsibility to investigate allegations of misconduct uncovered by a House oversight committee. The statement did not report any specific allegations.

The Times Free Press reported last week that one member each from the House oversight committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee also filed complaints with the board after reviewing evidence developed by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and other sources.

The statement from Harwell's spokeswoman, Kara Owen, noted that the board "was created and funded" to investigate attorney ethical complaints. It called for a "thorough, prompt investigation and appropriate action."

"After reviewing the findings and actions of the Board of Professional Responsibility, the 108th General Assembly will then take such actions as they feel are warranted and necessary to restore the public trust in the 10th Judicial District Attorney's Office," the statement read.

The chairman of the House oversight committee said that's a blunt warning that lawmakers will be watching the board.

"How many times in history has the speaker of the House come to them and said, 'OK, what are you going to do?' I think the writing's on the wall. I think they're going to be subject to an enormous amount of scrutiny," Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, said Friday.

Bebb did not respond Friday to a request for comment. Sandy Garrett, chief disciplinary counsel for the Board of Professional Responsibility, said in an email Friday that the body is required by state Supreme Court rules to keep mum on "all matters, investigations or proceedings involving allegations of misconduct" in most circumstances.

The TBI and state comptroller's office investigated Bebb last year at the request of state Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr. The probe began two weeks after the Times Free Press published a six-day series looking at allegations of financial and ethical misconduct by Bebb and people he supervised in the DA's office and the district's drug task force.

In March, Cooper said he had reviewed the results and found no prosecutable violations by Bebb. The state House and Senate then passed resolutions to exercise legislative oversight and review the TBI and other files themselves.

Owen said Friday afternoon that the board had not yet responded to Harwell's communication.

Shipley said the House and Senate committee investigations will go on separately from whatever the board decides to do.

"We're extending them a courtesy; that's all we're doing," he said.

Shipley noted that when the House and Senate were debating resolutions setting up the committees in the spring, a former board member and longtime Bebb co-worker and ally, Richard Fisher, visited the Hill to lobby lawmakers to vote no.

More recently, he said, "I had been encouraged by some people to yield oversight to the BOPR" but refused.

"I absolutely will not yield the constitutional responsibility we have as legislators to any nonelected body. I simply won't do it," Shipley said.

"Guilt and innocence have nothing to do with this. Restoring the trust of the people is my overwheming objective, to reassure them that the system does work. It may be slow and it may be arduous, but it does work."

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at 423-757-6416 or jwalton@timesfreepress.com.

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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