Over the past week, Times Free Press reporter Judy Walton has presented readers with one of the most compelling, well-documented pieces of long-form investigative reporting you'll see from any media outlet anywhere in America this year.
Walton's series of reports paints a shameful and shocking picture of misconduct taking place by public officials in Tennessee's 10th Judicial District under the leadership of District Attorney General Steve Bebb. Uncovering, verifying and reporting the shenanigans perpetrated by Bebb and his underlings consumed seven months and required dozens of requests for public records, scores of interviews and hundreds of hours of research.
For her efforts, Walton has justifiably received many pats on the back and should begin clearing off her mantle for the awards of recognition from the journalism community that will likely come. And all of that is great and very well-deserved.
But it won't mean a thing if Bebb isn't ousted.
If you're asking if Bebb actually should lose his job, you haven't been paying attention.
To recap every allegation of theft, fraud, civil rights abuse, possible perjury, exploiting his power to indict, violating ethics rules and trampling of constitutional rights committed by Bebb and his staff would require more words than this page allows.
Some of the more egregious examples of abuse of power and violating public trust by Bebb himself, or by workers under his supervision, include:
• Bebb refused to charge police officers for conduct that would have landed civilians in the slammer, including "abusing prescription pills and beating up spouses, to shooting up a neighborhood with an assault rifle, to driving drunk and wrecking a vehicle with methamphetamine ingredients inside," according to Walton's research.
• Bebb attempted to prosecute defendants despite having a clear conflict of interest.
• Bebb apparently perjured himself when, under oath, he claimed that he didn't prosecute a detective for apparently attempting to taint a case because "they lost their jobs" as a result of the alleged wrongdoing. It turns out they are both happily employed - one full-time and one part-time - at the Monroe County Sheriff's Office - something Bebb undoubtedly knew.
• After discovering the Cleveland, Tenn., police chief and one of his aides lied in sworn testimony, and that the chief ordered officers to arrest or cite people for little or no cause, Bebb chose not to prosecute the law-breaking police chief.
• When a former Tellico Plains chief couldn't account for $5,500 in cash from fundraisers and checks written to the police department, Bebb refused to press charges.
• Drug Task Force Lt. Bobby Queen shot a number of rounds from his .223-caliber M16 assault rifle through the roof of his suburban Cleveland home. That led to an overnight standoff between Queen and Bradley sheriff's and SWAT officials. Bebb chose not to charge Queen.
• "Court records and judges' opinions contain repeated allegations and findings that 10th District prosecutors withheld evidence, tolerated and even participated in law enforcement misconduct, and violated judicial orders and defendants' rights in criminal cases," Walton found.
• Bebb improperly used a 2007 Chevy Impala seized in a drug arrest as his personal vehicle.
• Bebb was improperly receiving mileage reimbursement checks that he was not entitled to because, according to him, an employee was "cheating on [his] behalf" - an eye-roller if there ever was one, since all mileage reimbursement forms ultimately were signed off on by Bebb himself.
• Drug task force agents under Bebb's authority spent "at least $100,000 between 2008 and 2010 on hotels, meals, mileage and airfare. They took dozens of trips to locations as close as Opryland and Gatlinburg and as far as Washington, D.C., Sandestin, Fla., and Charleston, S.C.," according to open records research.
• Assistant District Attorney Dallas Scott charged more than $4,000 in gas for his personal vehicle without proper justification, according to state auditors.
Maybe worst of all, Walton noted that "in four high-profile cases, court records alleged that prosecutors' and investigators' errors or mishandling had one of two results: Either people's lives and freedom possibly were imperiled by tainted evidence and poor procedures, or defendants who may have committed vicious and violent crimes could not be held to account."
This is particularly outrageous since, above all, the primary function of a DA's office is to facilitate the process of ensuring that justice is served. The incompetence of Bebb and his staff not only failed to assist the justice process, it actually inhibited it. As a direct result of Bebb, people who committed heinous crimes likely are walking free and innocent people may be sitting behind bars.
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There should be no question that Steve Bebb is a corrupt, incompetent and self-serving menace to the people in the 10th District counties of Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk.
The only question now is, what can be done to get Bebb out of office?
Thankfully, there are some options.
The Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility - the organization tasked with supervising the conduct of attorneys - can act on a "Petition for Discipline" against Bebb. There is little doubt that such a petition will be filed in Bebb's case - if it hasn't been already. After the petition is filed, if the board finds wrongdoing (and that seems pretty likely, doesn't it?), it can select from a number of possible sanctions, including "disbarment, suspension, public censure, private reprimand or private admonition," according to the board's website.
If the board chooses to disbar Bebb, or even to suspend him until his term expires in 2014, that will put an end to his repugnant reign over the 10th Judicial District.
Another option is for the state Legislature to convene for a vote to impeach Bebb.
According to the Tennessee Constitution, state attorneys like Bebb can be impeached by a simple majority vote of the General Assembly for crimes or misconduct committed solely in their official capacity. It shouldn't be hard for a majority of state lawmakers to agree that the dirt Walton has uncovered on Bebb more than constitutes "official misconduct."
There is a particularly appealing aspect of impeachment for taxpayers - and for the 10th District residents over whom Bebb has run roughshod for years. When he retires, Bebb stands to collect more than $85,000 a year in taxpayer-funded retirement benefits, according to estimates using the state's Consolidated Retirement System "retirement calculator." If Bebb is impeached, however, he won't receive one red cent of his retirement.
Several state lawmakers already have expressed interest in beginning the impeachment process sooner, rather than later.
Of course, all of this supposes that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations doesn't get to Bebb first, which they very well may.
We turn to you, Steve Bebb. Your transgressions are numerous, egregious and well-documented. You have options. You can go through the embarrassment of facing sanctions from the Board of Professional Responsibility, which will likely cost you any chance at ever practicing law again. Or you can face an impeachment trial in the Tennessee General Assembly, which will etch your dubious deeds in history books forever and, likely, strip you of your ability to retire comfortably.
You have a final choice, Mr. Bebb. You can save everyone a lot of time and trouble and simply resign.
The choice is yours, but we're sure of one thing: No matter what happens, your days of abusing your power for personal gain, skirting the law, wasting tax dollars and making a mockery of the justice system are quickly coming to an end.