Wow, if you're a candidate for any office in Hamilton County, you'd better be walking on eggshells.
You'd better be praising your opponents, not telling them you think they should consider dropping out because they accept legal but stinky donations or failed to vote for a tax increase or voted against a tax increase or supported the CVB when it spent lavishly.
Pick any campaign poison you like, because apparently if you say anything to your opponent that indicates they should not run for office because their words or actions — legal or not — reflect poorly on them, you might find yourself targeted by the local prosecutor and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. You might even be indicted and need to hire the best legal help in town.
Just ask Tim Boyd, a two-term Hamilton County commissioner who suddenly finds himself facing an extortion charge for allegedly threatening challenger Brent Lambert.
Lambert says Boyd threatened him to drop out of the race over campaign contributions. He filed a complaint against Boyd late last month.
But Boyd, 65, says Lambert, the 41-year-old East Ridge mayor, called him twice to discuss Lambert's $5,000 in contributions — $3,000 of which came from Interstate 75 Exit 1 developers just days after the East Ridge town council approved more than $4 million in bonds for projects. At the time, Lambert was not actively running for any office, but he later used the money to pay off a portion of a loan he gave to his own 2014 re-election campaign for East Ridge mayor. Boyd says he never threatened Lambert, but suggested he leave the race to save himself from embarrassment. "I talked to him like a son," Boyd told Times Free Press editors in a meeting in which he sought the paper's endorsements.
Boyd says Lambert set him up and recorded him.
"That means [Lambert] is also on the tape asking me on both calls what I thought he should do about staying in the race," Boyd said Wednesday.
According to the criminal indictment, Boyd "unlawfully coerced" Lambert "with the intent to obtain property, services, any advantage or immunity; or to restrict another's freedom of action."
One local defense attorney says the law in this case seemingly is being interpreted to mean that telling your opponent "to stop would be the alleged advantage. These are extremely generally written statutes. There's an awful lot of behavior that you might be able to shoebox into that statute."
By this theory of election extortion, Donald Trump should have been indicted before he was elected.
Can't you hear the chants? "Lock her up! Lock her up!" And we all recall the second televised U.S. presidential debate on Oct 9, 2016, when Donald Trump said if he was in charge of the country, Hillary Clinton would "be in jail." And he turned to Clinton to say: "If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation." The implication was clear: If elected, he would take actions that could lead to the imprisonment of his opponent.
Boyd is not the most tactful of politicians, but he's right when he says this is pure spiteful politics. He and the county mayor are widely known to hate each other — clashing often over taxes, budgets and accountability.
Likewise, Boyd has incurred the wrath of hoteliers, restaurateurs and I-75's Chattanooga Exit 1 developers.
It was Boyd the bulldog who last year took on the lavish expenditures of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. The CVB, with a robust $7.8 million budget (80 percent taxpayer funded) allowed 25 staffers to use equally robust expense accounts to lure an estimated $1 billion in tourism dollars here. Yes, that $1 billion is a nice return, but other cities do it for less. Huntsville spends about $2 million to bring back
$1 billion. Think what we could do for schools here if we could redirect $5 million.
But county officials — the mayor included — bridled at the transparency that both Boyd and the Times Free Press sought. They labeled the receipts and early county audit drafts as "financial working papers," which are protected from public scrutiny under state law. But in October, state auditors found that detailed receipts were not kept for 36 percent of the credit card charges made by CVB from July 2015 through June 2016.
Meanwhile, on Monday a list of power brokers and influence peddlers from the CVB board, downtown hoteliers, developers, restaurateurs and Exit 1 developers hosted a campaign fundraiser for Lambert. A fundraiser invitation offers "deepest appreciation to all of our gracious hosts: Emerson Russell, John Healy, John Foy, Allen Corey, Kevin Spiegel, Matt Wood, Ethan Wood, Jon Kinsey, Dr. Keith Helton, Jay Helton, Tim Hennen, Mike Rhyne, Ben Probasco, Jeff Sikes, Paul Brock, Mitch Patel, Johnny O'Brien, Ken Defoor."
Lest you think politics couldn't influence the justice system, remind yourselves that the TBI dragged its feet for 18 months before deciding to close with no further investigation an inquiry into alleged wrongdoing by Bradley Sheriff Eric Watson — even while the sheriff prepared for trial on 12 felony charges brought by the Tennessee Department of Revenue and related to forging automobile titles. Eventually Bradley District Attorney Jim Dunn dropped the charges.
Granted, the Watson case was complicated, both by legal questions and by Watson's close friendship with TBI Director Mark Gwyn. But somehow TBI took a complaint from Lambert and Hamilton County DA Neal Pinkston and turned it into an indictment in about six weeks.
Did we mention that the indictment was announced on the day before early voting started?