Our hats are off to a Tennessee House investigative panel that on Wednesday said there is enough evidence against 10th Judicial District Attorney Steve Bebb to continue a process to remove him from office.
The group has been looking at allegations that Bebb, who oversees prosecutors and investigations in Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties, violated the public trust in the way he and people he supervised behaved in recent years. That behavior includes allegations of Bebb accepting taxpayer reimbursement for driving a state-owned car and former 10th District Drug Task Force Chief Mike Hall spending thousands of dollars of public money on dining, travel and motels for himself and a female agent that could not be documented as legitimate task force expenses. Bebb is board chairman of the task force.
Other allegations of misconduct outlined in 2012 Chattanooga Times Free Press stories by reporter Judy Walton include civil rights violations in arrests and court cases -- from racial profiling in drug seizure cases to prosecutorial misconduct. In one case, the prosecutor allowed a detective to pretend to be an attorney in hopes of getting a jail inmate to implicate himself in a killing. The eventual murder charge was thrown out when a key witness said a detective had told him to lie in court about buying the victim's gun from the suspect. Other stories looked at allegations of grand jury tampering, retaliation and protection of officers for illegal acts that would have landed a civilian in jail.
This week, the bipartisan House panel became the first official body that has reviewed the allegations and evidence without simply sweeping them under a rug. The panel recommended that House Speaker Beth Harwell appoint another panel to come up with specific charges warranting Bebb's removal when the Tennessee General Assembly convenes in January, said Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport.
A separate Senate committee also is considering evidence developed from Walton's series, as well as from a subsequent investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the state Comptroller's Office ordered by Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr.
In March, Cooper released a report saying Bebb exhibited poor judgment and was a bad record-keeper, but Cooper, a fellow Democrat, did not find any prosecutable violations.
Shipley said the House panel, which he described as a "pseudo grand jury situation," agreed there were no currently prosecutable violations, but he said the issue is public trust in elected officials.
"This was never about guilt or innocence," Shipley said. "Our whole object is to make sure the people of the state of Tennessee get a fair shake in their legal system ..."
Shipley said one member each of the House and Senate committees have told him they filed complaints against Bebb with the Board of Professional Responsibility based on evidence from the investigation. The board is the disciplinary agency for Tennessee attorneys and has power to strip a lawyer's license. If the board decides to open an investigation of Bebb, that could play into any potential House or Senate action, he said.
Shipley said the House action was handled very deliberately because it is "unique in the history of Tennessee" to be trying to remove a district attorney who has not been charged with a crime or lost his law license.
"There has been an overwhelming desire to restore the trust of the people of Tennessee, particularly the people of the 10th Judicial District," Shipley said.
It also is unusual -- and heartening -- to see authorities and elected officials working to hold accountable fellow authorities and officials.
All too often authorities -- including the TBI and the attorney general -- turned a blind eye to clearly reasonable concerns with Bebb's office and the 10th District Drug Task Force, long before Walton's research shined a light on the $5 million brought in between 2007 and 2010 from police operations along Interstate 75.
Cash, drugs and many vehicles were impounded in cases where there were no arrests, or where the defendants were freed while their vehicles and money were kept. All the while, taxpayers were still tagged at least $150,000 for travel, expensive dining and partying by the task force.
Whether that was a result of poor accounting and lack of due process, or because of corruption, authorities knew about it for years and took no action.
The public deserves better.