Tape offers inside look at inquiry into Steve Bebb

Tape offers inside look at inquiry into Steve Bebb

February 23rd, 2014 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

10th Judicial District Attorney General Steve Bebb, right, talks with special prosecutors Bill Cox, background, and Cox's assistant, Neal Pinkston, during a recess in Judge Amy Reedy's courtroom.

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

Members of a state House committee that followed up last year on a TBI investigation of 10th Judicial District Attorney Steve Bebb expected legislative charges against Bebb and possible removal when the General Assembly convened in January.

It hasn't happened that way.

The House committee voted in August to ask that charges be brought. Nearly halfway through the legislative session, the House committee's counterpart, the Senate Judiciary Committee, has yet to vote whether charges are warranted.

However, public records from the House panel's work illuminate some of the specific allegations against Bebb, such as:

• Misusing his authority by indicting a father involved in a nasty child custody battle as a favor to the other side;

• Threatening indictment to silence a man whose handgun was wrongly seized and sold by police;

• Maintaining a policy of not prosecuting police officers involved in wrongdoing;

• Submitting false expense reports while driving a state vehicle.

All those allegations were aired in a meeting between two members of the House oversight committee and the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility, the agency responsible for attorney discipline, in September. Audio of the meeting was obtained under Tennessee's Open Records Act.

The Board of Professional Responsibility to date has taken no public action on information from the meeting or from complaints filed last year by House Speaker Beth Harwell, Senate Judiciary Chairman Brian Kelsey and others related to findings in the TBI report.

Bebb did not respond to a request for comment. His term ends in August, and he is not seeking re-election.

Harwell and Kelsey said through a representative that the investigation is ongoing and confidential.

But there are hints that board agents are actively investigating and that the entire Board of Professional Responsibility could hear the results as soon as next month.

•••

Committee Chairman Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, a committee member, met in September with the executive director of the Board of Professional Responsibility, James Vick, and Chief Disciplinary Counsel Sandy Garrett to ask whether those and other allegations distilled from the 4,000-page TBI report and the committee's own investigation were breaches of legal ethics.

"Of the items we have mentioned, [four] are substantiated inside the TBI report. In fact, he [Bebb] stipulates to some of that information," Shipley told the visitors.

Bebb wasn't charged with any crimes from the TBI investigation, which state Attorney General Bob Cooper ordered in August 2012 after a six-day Times Free Press series detailed allegations of prosecutorial and financial misconduct in Bebb's office and the 10th Judicial District Drug Task Force of which he is chairman.

At the Sept. 29 meeting, Shipley was openly critical of Cooper's report.

"I want to say this about the attorney general's report: 'I found no prosecutable crimes,'" Shipley said, referring to Cooper's conclusion from the three-month TBI investigation.

"No prosecutable felonies. Didn't say he didn't find a felony; said it was unprosecutable, meaning that it ran the statute of limitations. Nor in that report did the attorney general say, 'I didn't find a misdemeanor offense.'"

One allegation in the file that Cooper dismissed was "allegation of threatening criminal prosecution for the purpose of assisting a party at a divorce proceeding in obtaining a more favorable child custody arrangement."

No name was used in the AG's report or publicly at the September meeting, but one of the parties involved agreed to speak to the Times Free Press.

Bradley County resident Jason Cole said he had won custody of the couple's three children and his ex-wife wanted a different arrangement.

His ex had a friend who knew a TBI agent. That agent went to Bebb's office and got a clerical employee to sign a search warrant, then went to Cole's employer and searched his computers, Cole said. Before the divorce, Cole said, he had put a cellphone in his wife's car with a child tracker on it, had read her emails and installed a keystroke logger on his computer at home.

Next thing he knew, Cole said, Bebb had called him in and offered a deal: Change the parenting plan in your ex's favor or be indicted for wiretapping. Shipley said Bebb knew Cole had an attorney but didn't notify him, a separate ethical issue.

Cole refused and was indicted on four counts. Eventually -- after he was forced to resign his job and was "bleeding to death financially," he said -- he agreed to plead guilty and accept judicial diversion for two years. He also agreed to dissolve the parenting plan.

Two weeks after his ex got custody of the children, he said, Bebb agreed to end the judicial diversion.

Cole said he was interviewed by the TBI for six hours but that his file was not included in TBI documents given to the House panel. He said he spent two hours with Carter -- "his mouth was hanging open" -- and met with the Board of Professional Responsibility. He also said Kelsey has asked for a meeting but they've not been able to schedule one to date.

Cooper said there were no grounds for a charge of extortion against Bebb because he wasn't taking the coercive action to benefit himself, a primary element for such a charge.

Shipley told the Board of Professional Responsibility members that Bebb's conduct fit the crime of official oppression, a felony.

Carter, who served as a General Sessions judge in Hamilton County, told Garrett and Vick that Bebb "stepped outside and extorted a person to change a decision in a civil case for a friend of his."

"When I saw that, I literally did not believe it," he said. "But it happened; the TBI proved that."

"We can have two standards of justice: the haves and the have-nots, or the privileged and the unprivileged," Carter continued.

"And leading from that, his abuse -- 'you do what I want you to do or I'm going to prosecute you' -- has never been clearer than you're going to read in the [case of a] young man at Lee College (sic)."

Carter and Shipley outlined the case for Vick and Garrett. A Lee University student who had a part-time job as a security guard in Georgia came back to the college dorm late one night and was pulled over for what Carter called a "claimed traffic violation" by a pair of agents with the 10th District Drug Task Force.

They discovered he had a handgun, including a permit, but they said it's illegal to have the weapon on campus. They gave him a choice: Give them the gun or get arrested.

The young man's goal was to become a police officer. Being charged with a crime would "ruin his life," Carter said. So he agreed to hand over the weapon.

But he told his brother, already a police officer in a nearby town, what happened.

"He says, 'You've got to be kidding,'" Carter said. The brother told a supervisor, who called someone else, and word got back to Bebb.

"Bebb calls and finds out, sure enough, these guys did that. So, calls the kid in. Says, 'Let me tell you something. You want to play hardball, we're gonna play hardball. I'm gonna indict your ass,'" Carter said.

"Scared him completely to death. Then Bebb hands a preprinted form to him: 'Sign that, give us your gun, we won't indict you.'" So he did.

The drug task force later sold or swapped the weapon at a Cleveland gun shop, Drug Task Force records show.

The young man, who declined to speak to the Times Free Press for the 2012 series, now works as a police officer in the region, according to Tennessee's Police Officer Standards and Training Commission. He could not be reached for comment for this report.

The task force was known for those preprinted forms, known as "contracts." People caught with contraband could agree to give it up and they wouldn't be arrested or charged. Such cases never made it onto a booking sheet or a court docket, law enforcement officers told the Times Free Press in the 2012 series.

Shipley brought up allegations from the TBI file that Bebb refused to charge police officers who beat up their spouses, shot up their homes or wrecked their vehicles while drunk. The attorney general's report excused the inaction by saying that district attorneys have nearly unlimited latitude in deciding when and whether to charge someone with a crime.

Even so, Shipley said, prosecutorial discretion must have limits.

"If prosecutorial discretion allows district attorneys, judges and police officers to violate the same felony law that we hold others accountable for, and sets apart a special class, such discretion has now risen to the level of abuse."

Among other allegations discussed in the 51-minute meeting was whether Bebb violated the False Claims Act by driving a car seized by the drug task force and claiming taxpayer reimbursement for mileage.

State law says vehicles seized and forfeited in drug cases may be used in local drug enforcement programs or sold. They can't be used for general law enforcement purposes.

The mileage reimbursement is calculated to cover not only fuel but ancillary costs of operating a vehicle -- everything from insurance to oil changes, which Bebb didn't have to pay for.

Cooper's report said no claim for theft was warranted because Bebb "honestly if mistakenly believed" that the task force had bought -- not seized -- the vehicle, so it was available for any use.

The attorney general also said Bebb should not be punished for taking taxpayer reimbursement for driving the car.

First, Cooper said, Bebb sometimes drove the DTF car and sometimes his own, so it wasn't clear whether the reimbursement was for the state-owned car. Second, he said, Bebb's secretary prepared the expense forms and he signed them without careful review. Third, Cooper said, Bebb said when he found he was improperly using a state-owned car, he drove his own car for a year and didn't ask for any reimbursement.

Shipley's comment to Vick and Garrett about that: "It was in the attorney general's report where the district attorney said, 'I didn't know it was illegal.' Really? A former judge and district attorney? Really?"

In fact, Cooper's conclusion contradicts witnesses and records.

Law enforcement officers in the district told the Times Free Press in 2012 that Bebb drove the seized 2007 silver Impala almost exclusively from 2009 until early 2012.

State records show there was never a year-long period during that time that he did not accept mileage reimbursement. The longest he got no mileage check was July to December of 2010, according to state records. During the rest of that time, he got mileage checks roughly every other month, totaling $2,859.03.

Shipley and Carter told Garrett and Vick the House group had combed through the TBI files to pick the top items that most clearly showed ethical violations.

"These stick. We think you've got enough in this to work it," Shipley said.

•••

On Friday, Shipley told the Times Free Press that the next step is for the Senate Judiciary Committee to act.

But it's clear from per diem records that the House panel has done the bulk of the work so far. House panel members averaged more than 20 trips to Nashville for the committee before the Aug. 21 vote; Shipley made 34 trips to work on the investigation.

The Senate group averaged fewer than 4.5 trips, per diem records show.

Shipley said his group found it frustrating that they had no investigative staff or budget to follow up on some issues that developed as they perused the TBI report and interviewed witnesses.

"Some of it we think should have been looked at by guys with badges, but we don't have ability to do that," he said.

He and Cole both said they were told the BOPR investigation is to be presented to the whole disciplinary board at its March meeting.

If the board finds ethics violations, it could administer private or public discipline ranging from a reprimand to revoking Bebb's law license.

Garrett declined to comment Friday, saying that everything about the board's investigations is confidential under Supreme Court rules.

Shipley said his committee remains convinced that charges are justified, and he hopes the BOPR comes to the same conclusion.

"My fervent hope is they will bring back a report that reflects the truth; if it reflects the truth, it's my belief the Legislature will be compelled to act," he said.

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