Some local attorneys say a Hamilton County judge who recently took medical leave lied about conducting a hearing in January to erase 20-year-old charges from a friend's criminal record.
General Sessions Court Judge David E. Bales said every record from a 1997 case involving Michael Edward Allen and his wife, Deborah Knowles Allen, needed to be expunged because Allen was "a victim of identity theft," according to a Jan. 3 order.
Bales made the ruling after a "full evidentiary hearing," the order says. Weeks later, Allen's charges were removed from the state's criminal records website.
But that order does not include the date of the hearing, the facts of the case, any witnesses who testified, or any kind of detailed legal analysis. Judges typically include that information on an order and release their opinions within a few weeks of the hearing.
Bales, however, never conducted that hearing, according to sources, attorneys and public records. He missed at least 45 days on the bench after he was diagnosed with cancer in fall 2016, including most of October, November and all of December and January.
On the morning of Jan. 3, General Sessions Court Judge Clarence Shattuck covered Bales' caseload while local defense attorney Garth Best agreed to preside over the afternoon docket.
"What he's [Bales] done is made something up, and it's something that was not true," said David Barrow, a defense lawyer familiar with the case. "It is wrong to lie in a court document."
Two sources, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, said a Chattanooga attorney filed an official ethics complaint against Bales with the Administrative Office of the Courts in connection with the case.
The AOC oversees all Tennessee courts and could suspend, publicly reprimand or disbar Bales if it investigates the allegation and finds it to be true. The organization does not disclose when it receives a complaint.
But it publicly reprimanded Bales before in December 2011, saying he violated judicial ethics in two cases.
The first incident happened in November 2010 when Bales set a $70,000 bond in a domestic assault and false imprisonment case without the defendant or his attorney present. After former Criminal Court Judge Rebecca Stern released the defendant on appeal, Bales summoned the man's attorney to his court and criticized the case in front of reporters. In the second incident, Bales criticized Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman for reducing a $1 million bond he set in a murder case.
Attorneys and sources said another issue in the Allen case is Bales initiated the expungement process and went around the typical channels of approval. Expungement allows people convicted of minor crimes to erase them from public record.
"But the judge sits in review of that process; the judge doesn't make it up on his own to decide to expunge someone's record," Barrow said.
Here's a common example: A person who pleaded guilty 15 years ago to a public intoxication charge now needs to pass a background check for a new job. So his or her attorney lays out the case for expungement to an assistant district attorney.
"We'll look to see if everything is as advertised. And then we'll say to the defense, 'Prepare a petition,'" said Dave Denny, a Hamilton County assistant DA who works in General Sessions Court.
After that, the defense attorney and prosecutor typically present the request to a judge in open court for approval.
But there's no record Allen had an attorney and no expungement petition for him ever passed through the district attorney's office, said Melissa Ledbetter, a paralegal in the DA's office.
Defense attorneys occasionally will go straight to a General Sessions Court judge with an expungement request, Denny said. "But most of the judges will say, 'Let the DA look at that first.'"
Michael Allen's wife said Tuesday she didn't know anything about the hearing and would forward the message to her husband, who did not return a call requesting comment.
Allen was arrested after his wife — a niece of Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles — told police her husband pushed her in their Harrison, Tenn., home on April 30, 1997, during a domestic dispute, an arrest affidavit shows.
Records show Allen pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and public intoxication in the summer of 1997 and received diversion. That's a program through which defendants can avoid jail time if they complete an alternative sentence, such as probation, and pay their court fines.
Bill Knowles, who has been on the ballot 22 times in a 43-year career as Hamilton County clerk, said Tuesday he didn't know about the Jan. 3 hearing either.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.