Tennessee House investigative panel wants District Attorney Steve Bebb ousted

photo Steve Bebb

HOUSE PANEL MEMBERSRep. Tony Shipley, R-KingsportRep. Mike Carter, R-OoltewahRep. William Lamberth, R-CottontownRep. John DeBerry Jr., D-MemphisRep. G.A. Hardaway, D-MemphisRep. Karen D. Camper, D-MemphisSENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEEChairman Brian Kelsey, R-Collierville1st Vice Chairman Doug Overbey, R-Maryville2nd Vice Chairman Stacey Campfield, R-KnoxvilleMike Bell, R-Riceville (recused self from probe)Lowe Finney, D-JacksonOphelia Ford, D-MemphisTodd Gardenhire, R-ChattanoogaMark Green, R-ClarksvilleJohn Stevens, R-Huntingdon

A Tennessee House investigative panel said Wednesday there is enough evidence against 10th Judicial District Attorney Steve Bebb to continue a process to remove him from office.

The special judicial oversight committee will recommend that House Speaker Beth Harwell appoint another panel to come up with specific charges warranting removal when the Tennessee General Assembly convenes in January, said Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport.

"There were 15 items considered, and those will be provided to the charging committee," said Shipley, chairman of the special investigative panel appointed during the session earlier this year.

Harwell, a Nashville Republican, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Bebb did not respond to a request for comment.

A separate Senate committee also is considering evidence developed from a Chattanooga Times Free Press series and 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 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 said there was a "texture" of misconduct in the files the six committee members examined.

"This was never about guilt or innocence," he said. "Our whole object is to make sure the people of the state of Tennessee get a fair shake in their legal system, and that's exactly what this is about."


The six-day Times Free Press series published in August 2012 detailed wide-ranging allegations of misconduct by Bebb and people he supervised. Those included allegations about Bebb accepting taxpayer reimbursement for driving a state-owned car and rampant financial misconduct in the 10th District Drug Task Force, whose board chairman is Bebb.

The newspaper detailed how former task force chief Mike Hall spent 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.

Stories also outlined allegations of 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.

After Cooper's report came out in March, the House and Senate convened separate committees to exercise what they called legislative oversight of the process.

Shipley said the House panel looked at evidence developed in the TBI/comptroller probe from "a little different slant" than Cooper did.

"The attorney general's view was from criminality; we viewed it from a different perspective, of appropriateness," Shipley said.

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He declined to reveal any specific allegations of wrongdoing, saying the ongoing investigation is confidential. But he said that the committee's investigation is different than the attorney general's.

"We aren't bound by the statute of limitations," Shipley said.

He said the committee's letter to Harwell will go out today, but he doesn't know when she might act.

He also 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.

James Vick, chief disciplinary counsel for the Board of Professional Responsibility, said by email Wednesday that complaints or investigations are confidential and he could not confirm whether any complaints have been filed against Bebb.

No vote has been scheduled in the companion Senate committee headed by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Collierville. A spokesman in Kelsey's office declined to comment Wednesday.

Shipley said the House action has been 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," he said.

Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, sits on the special House committee. Carter, a former General Sessions Court judge in Hamilton County, said he's pleased with how the panel operated.

"The speaker was smart to name three Democrats and three Republicans," Carter said. "I didn't know his [Bebb's] party until we were well into this investigation -- what difference does it make?" Bebb is a Democrat.

"But this is a very rare thing, there's almost no precedent, so we just wanted to be careful. It's moved out of our hands now, and we'll just have to see what happens next."

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.

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