Chattanooga: Lawyer hired in ouster lawsuit

Chattanooga: Lawyer hired in ouster lawsuit

February 24th, 2009 by Elizabeth Ryan in Local Regional News

The citizens group that filed an ouster suit against East Ridge Mayor Mike Steele has hired an attorney and filed an amended suit Monday in Hamilton County Criminal Court.

In the ouster suit filed last fall, the petitioners alleged Mr. Steele usurped his powers outlined in the City Charter by setting up an office and hiring employees.

But in a court appearance in mid-December, Hamilton County Attorney Bill Cox said there was no criminal evidence against Mr. Steele and refused to help the group pursue the case.

The group's new attorney, Charles G. Wright Jr., said he had thoroughly reviewed the group's evidence against Mr. Steele and believes their case has merit.

"It's not required that it (a mayor's alleged actions) be illegal," Mr. Wright said. "It just has to be willfully in violation of their duties."

The group is expected to appear in court for a final hearing March 31. Mr. Wright said the hearing, which will be held in Criminal Court before Judge Don Poole, will be a civil proceeding.

"It's a civil case in criminal court," Mr. Wright said. "We have not in the petition, to my knowledge, alleged any crimes."

The amended petition also accuses Mr. Steele of attempting to gain a business advantage for himself by proposing the city use payroll services provided by Payroll Professionals Inc., a business they say he was associated with.

Mr. Steele said his company, Payroll Professionals of Tennessee, has a franchise relationship with Payroll Professionals Inc. but does not receive any revenues. When he later decided to purchase a franchise with the Kennesaw, Ga.-based company for himself, he asked East Ridge Human Resources Director Trish Perry to stop considering them in order to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest.

"Of all the allegations that they put in there ... the one that is damaging to me personally is that they would claim that I would try to use my position as mayor to try to get business for my company," Mr. Steele said. "That's ridiculous. ... I would never use my position to profit in any way."

Mr. Steele's attorney Dee Hobbs said the City never ended up outsourcing its payroll.

Lead petitioner Jackie Fulks said the group's case was rejected by several attorneys before Mr. Wright agreed to represent them. The other attorneys never reviewed the evidence against Mr. Steele, she said, suggesting "political reasons" were to blame.