TBI 10th District investigation didn't include grand jurors

TBI 10th District investigation didn't include grand jurors

April 13th, 2013 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

Steve Bebb

LEGISLATIVE INVESTIGATION

The House Criminal Justice Committee is expected to join its Senate counterpart next week in directing the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to let members view the agency's probe of Bebb. The House Delayed Bills Committee on Thursday approved House Resolution 60. Senators approved their own resolution earlier in the week. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, said he cannot comment on when the panel would view the files.

Document: Attorney General Response

Tennessee's top legal officer says state investigators couldn't substantiate an allegation that a McMinn County, Tenn., prosecutor tried to influence a grand jury in a 2010 case with political overtones.

The reason why, as it turns out, is because the investigators never asked.

Grand jurors who said last year they were persuaded not to indict a candidate in the 2010 McMinn County sheriff's race now say the TBI never interviewed them during an investigation of the 10th Judicial District ordered by Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation confirms that its agents didn't look into the allegations.

Both assertions contradict Cooper's initial report of the four-month investigation.

One grand juror was dumbfounded by the report's finding of no evidence of improper influence.

"If I had read that, I'd have had a stroke," the juror said.

Friday afternoon, Cooper's office released a statement saying that its investigation was limited to allegations against District Attorney General Steve Bebb. After finding no evidence he had been involved in the grand jury issue, "this Office determined that additional interviews by the TBI on this subject were not warranted," according to the statement.

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Cooper ordered the TBI and comptroller's office in August to investigate allegations of prosecutorial and financial misconduct and other potential wrongdoing raised in a Times Free Press series.

In the report released March 26, Cooper said he asked the TBI to investigate seven issues related to the operations of Bebb's office and the district drug task force that Bebb supervised.

One of the issues was "improper influence of grand jury by assistant district attorney."

In 2010, a McMinn County grand jury was asked to look at an allegation that sheriff candidate Joe Guy had laundered campaign money by giving cash to supporters, who in turn wrote him a check he reported as a contribution. The grand jury declined to indict, and Guy, a Republican, went on to win the seat.

But some grand jurors later complained that jury foreman Joel Craig and Assistant District Attorney Paul Rush had tried to guide their votes. The grand jurors asked their names not be used because they took an oath of secrecy related to their duties.

Rush wasn't supposed to be there -- his office had recused itself from the case because both candidates were local lawmen. The presentation was to be handled by a special prosecutor, Knox County District Attorney Randy Nichols.

But before the special prosecutor came in, the grand jurors said, Craig and Rush told them the case was just political, that they knew Guy was a fine man from a good family, and other statements aimed at persuading them not to indict.

They also said two substitute grand jurors were brought in -- one came in late and missed part of the presentation -- and helped provide a majority vote not to indict.

Nichols' office was asked to investigate. An agent reviewed Guy's campaign finance reports and spoke to the people who wrote checks to him. He interviewed the two grand jurors who complained but none of the others. Finally, Criminal Court Judge Amy Reedy ordered him to close the investigation without making a formal report, the investigative file shows.

At the time, Guy called the case political, and Rush denied wrongdoing.

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TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm confirmed this week the agents did not investigate the allegation or interview the grand jurors.

"It was the Knox district attorney's office that investigated that before we were asked to investigate Bebb," Helm said. "We were not asked to reinvestigate that. I don't know why, and that's not our decision."

Cooper's March 26 report stated that the charge of improper influence of a juror is based on a person "privately communicating with a juror" to influence the outcome. But there's no allegation of private communication in the case, he wrote, since "the allegation relates only to statements made to the entire grand jury while in session."

Further, he wrote, "the investigation was unable to confirm that the alleged communication actually took place." The investigation also didn't uncover any evidence that Bebb had any contact with a grand juror or played any role in any action to influence the jurors.

The Friday statement describes a slightly different process. It states that after the initial request to the TBI, Cooper's office reviewed the Knox DA's report and determined that there was nothing to implicate Bebb. "On that basis, this Office determined that additional interviews by the TBI on this subject were not warranted."

•••

Both grand jurors said this week they were upset that they couldn't tell their stories to the TBI.

"It galls me so much because I know what took place," one juror said.

"Both [jury foreman Joel Craig] and the assistant DA, before they left that room, they both testified in Joe's behalf, that he was a fine man, a church-going man.

"I will swear under oath that both the assistant district attorney and Joel stood there and gave a character testimony on his behalf, as a personal friend," the juror said.

The other juror said several people on the panel had wanted to indict Guy.

"If they were investigating, all 12 of us should have been talked to. Or at least the four of us that voted for indictment," the juror said.

"Then when it come out [in Cooper's report] there were no charges anywhere, I'm thinking, OK, you look: For ordinary people, there would be [charges]."

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