Bebb's actions merit impeachment: State lawmakers must act quickly

Bebb's actions merit impeachment: State lawmakers must act quickly

March 31st, 2013 in Opinion Free Press

Steve Bebb

Last August, Times Free Press reporter Judy Walton wrote an extensive, multipart series detailing the apparently corrupt, incompetent and inappropriate behavior of 10th Judicial District Attorney General Steve Bebb.

Walton's investigative reporting found a number of examples of abuse of power and violation of the public trust by Bebb, as well as evidence of wrongdoing by employees under his supervision. Among the more startling revelations were that Bebb:

• Refused to charge police officers for conduct that would have landed civilians in jail, including apparent theft and a shooting incident that led to a standoff between an off-duty officer and Bradley sheriff's and SWAT officials.

• Attempted to prosecute defendants despite having a clear conflict of interest.

• Apparently perjured himself under oath.

• Inappropriately used a 2007 Chevy Impala seized in a drug arrest for business outside state guidelines.

• Improperly received mileage reimbursement checks that he was not entitled to.

• Used his office to retaliate against people who got on his bad side.

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."

The revelations and allegations uncovered through Walton's investigative reporting forced Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper to call for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the state comptroller's office to jointly probe possible wrongdoing in the 10th District.

Last Monday, the Times Free Press learned that, despite confirming a litany of inappropriate actions, ranging from poor judgment and mismanagement to deficient record keeping, the state attorney general found no prosecutable evidence against Bebb on allegations of official misconduct, theft, bribery, extortion and other offenses.

That shouldn't come as much of a surprise. The attorney general, a fellow longtime Southeast Tennessee Democratic lawyer who has known Bebb for decades, apparently had to be cajoled to launch the investigation to begin with.

The finding of the investigation were sealed, so no one knows what the TBI and comptroller's office uncovered, but the attorney general's report focused very narrowly on prosecutable legal issues. The report itself notes that it's limited to "matters in which a district attorney general might be criminally responsible for such acts." It excludes questions such as abuse of power, ethics violations, improper supervision and managerial misconduct.

There remain fistfuls of examples and accusations raised in Walton's investigative series and the state report that remain unsettled. And unpunished.

While abuse of power and violating the public trust may not be of concern to the state attorney general, fortunately, they are for Tennessee's state lawmakers.

Members of the Tennessee General Assembly are currently considering whether to remove Bebb from office for his apparently long list of sordid deeds.

They should stop considering and start acting.

In the case of state attorneys, such as Bebb, Article 5 of the Tennessee Constitution allows the House of Representatives to conduct hearings to determine if grounds exist for impeachment or removal.

If a majority of state House members decide impeachment proceedings are warranted, a trial occurs in the Senate, with the chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court presiding. Upon the conclusion of the trial, a two-thirds vote of the Senate is required to remove a state attorney from office.

While it is now unlikely that Bebb will be charged with a criminal offense, the issues related to his possible abuse of office and violation of public trust remain unanswered -- and very concerning. State lawmakers owe it to the people of the 10th Judicial District to hold Bebb accountable.

Impeachment proceedings are a serious, solemn event. State lawmakers should not consider impeachment frivolously or for minor offenses. However, when a state official has shown an eagerness to exploit his position for his own advantage, and to benefit his friends while punishing his enemies, as Bebb apparently has, impeachment is the proper course of action.