published Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

Report: Tennessee won't prosecute Steve Bebb

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    Bradley County District Attorney General Steve Bebb

JUSTICE IN QUESTION

Read the entire backstory here.

ALLEGATIONS INVESTIGATED

• Abuse of prosecutorial authority

• Unauthorized disclosure of TBI investigative records

• Improper influence of grand jury

• Impersonation of attorney

• Perjury in deposition testimony

• Use of Economic Crime Funds, automobile provided by DTF and filing of expense claims

• Wrongful conduct by past and present DTF agents

Source: Attorney general's report

Steve Bebb report
Steve Bebb report

The state attorney general has found no prosecutable criminal acts by 10th Judicial District Attorney General Steve Bebb.

A report by Attorney General Robert Cooper criticizes Bebb's office for poor judgment, mismanagement and deficient record keeping but finds no prosecutable evidence against him on allegations of official misconduct, theft, bribery, extortion and other offenses.

Prosecutable evidence against employees in Bebb's office or current or former officers of the district's drug task force would be handled by someone other than the attorney general's office, Cooper's report states.

The Times Free Press obtained a copy of the report late Monday afternoon.

Contacted by phone Monday evening, Bebb said he had not yet read it and would reserve comment for now.

State Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, and Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who called for the attorney general to investigate allegations raised in a Times Free Press series last year, also said Monday they haven't read the report and declined to comment immediately.

The newspaper investigated allegations that under Bebb, the prosecutor's office botched important cases through ineptness or misconduct, misused taxpayer money and played favorites in criminal prosecutions in the 10th Judicial District of Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties. The Aug. 12-17, 2012, series of stories drew calls from state lawmakers and others for an investigation.

On Aug. 28, Cooper called for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the state comptroller's office to begin a joint probe.

Three TBI agents and two investigators interviewed 61 witnesses, including auditors who examined the books and records of Bebb's office and the drug task force, according to Cooper's report. Their findings:

• Allegations related to abuse of prosecutorial authority

The Times Free Press cited numerous cases where Bebb declined to prosecute law enforcement officers for conduct that would have landed a civilian in jail. Among those were a DTF officer, Lt. Bobby Queen, who held his wife in the house and fired multiple rounds through the roof with a high-powered service rifle; a DTF agent who drove drunk and wrecked her truck in the yard of a house, then fled, leaving meth-making materials and agency property behind; a police captain accused of domestic abuse and a detective who posed illegally as an attorney to try to get a jailed man to implicate himself in a murder.

"The investigation uncovered no evidence that would suggest that Bebb improperly interfered in investigations of these matters or that his decisions not to prosecute were based on illegal motives." The report noted that "illegal motives" would be things like taking bribes or committing official misconduct or extortion.

The report quoted a Tennessee Supreme Court opinion stating that a district attorney general "is answerable to no superior and has virtually unbridled discretion in determining whether to prosecute and for what offense."

"Bebb's decisions fall within the exercise of his prosecutorial authority," the report states.

• Unauthorized disclosure of TBI investigative records

A related issue in the report that wasn't covered in the newspaper series was whether Bebb released results of the TBI investigation into the Queen incident to the officer. TBI records are confidential by law. Investigators concluded Bebb gave Queen some material but couldn't determine exactly what it was. They said there was insufficient evidence to show an unauthorized disclosure of TBI records.

• Perjury in deposition testimony

The Times Free Press reported an allegation that Bebb spoke untruthfully under oath in a deposition during a lawsuit by a fired DTF agent. The report states that "Bebb did not make a false statement and did not intend to deceive." It states that Bebb got "sidetracked" and never got back on course. The report does not deal with a second allegation of speaking untruthfully under oath in a separate case.

• Use of Economic Crime Funds, automobile provided by DTF and filing of expense claims

The report acknowledged issues raised in the Times Free Press series, including that Bebb spent thousands from a fund meant to prosecute fraud and bad-check cases for annual office meetings and Christmas parties, that he improperly drove a car that had been seized in a drug case and that he accepted taxpayer funds for mileage reimbursement in the state-owned car.

The report slaps Bebb and his office for "poor judgment, deficient record keeping, and insufficient attention to the appropriate use of public resources," but found no criminal violations.

Though parties and meetings aren't a specifically permitted use of Economic Crime Fund money, the report stated, "a district attorney general may arguably use the funds for any office-related purpose, except for certain payments that are related to salary."

Regarding the seized car that he drove between 2009 and early 2012, Bebb told investigators that former DTF Director Mike Hall said the task force had paid off the lien on the car after it was seized.

"Bebb honestly but mistakenly believed" that DTF has bought the car and he could use it for any official business.

As for submitting for taxpayer-paid reimbursement for driving the car, the report states that Bebb sometimes used his personal vehicle for official business, "thus leading to confusion concerning the preparation of expense claims."

It states that a secretary prepared the claims and "Bebb signed and submitted them without careful review."

The process "lacked the documentation and formality necessary to ensure governmental accountability. These deficiencies, however, do not rise to the level of prosecutorial offense," the report states.

The investigating agents also looked at elements of the Times Free Press series not directly involving Bebb.

In one, two members of a McMinn County grand jury told the newspaper that their foreman and an assistant district attorney persuaded the panel not to indict a candidate for sheriff.

Under Tennessee law, the report states, a charge of improperly influencing a juror refers to private communication with a single juror. The allegation involved communication to the entire panel, the report stated. It also said investigators could not confirm there was any actual attempt to persuade the jurors, and that Bebb had in no way been involved.

The investigators also looked at allegations about DTF agents in the Times Free Press series, including uncontrolled spending, misuse of credit cards and possible misconduct in connection with the seizure and forfeiture of money and property during drug arrests.

Cooper noted that his authority only extended to "matters in which a district attorney general might be criminally responsible for such acts."

There was no evidence that Bebb had a "direct or supervisory connection" to the agents' actions, the report stated, but anything pointing to agent misconduct will be forwarded to "the appropriate prosecutorial authority."

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6298.

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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