Hamilton County district attorney moves wife to county payroll amid state nepotism concerns

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / District Attorney Neal Pinkston, right, speaks with members of the media during a news conference in April.
Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / District Attorney Neal Pinkston, right, speaks with members of the media during a news conference in April.

Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston, whose office has both state and county funding, has moved his wife from the state portion of his payroll to the county's amid concerns about nepotism.

Pinkston, who has served as the top prosecutor for Tennessee's 11th Judicial District since 2014, married a subordinate, Melydia Clewell, in 2019 and appointed her brother, Kerry Clewell, as an investigator in 2020.

After the relationships were made public by the Times Free Press in May, state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, raised concerns about the situation given that Tennessee law does not allow one relative to supervise another within state government.

In a series of emails obtained by the Times Free Press last month, Gardenhire asked the Tennessee District Attorneys Conference - a state agency tasked with administrative support of the state's prosecutors - about the apparent conflict.

The conference's director, Guy Jones, told Gardenhire in the emails Pinkston intended to move his relatives to the county's payroll.

Gardenhire then called for Jones to correct what he considered a "shell game" being played by Pinkston.

Neither Pinkston nor Bruce Garner, the spokesperson for the District Attorney's Office, responded to multiple phone and email requests for comment for this story. However, the office did release some emails requested by the newspaper under the Tennessee Public Records Act.

Those emails show that Jones contacted Pinkston about the issue in May and then again on June 29 (six days after Gardenhire's complaint to Jones) and asked for evidence the law was being upheld.

"Recently, I received an inquiry from a legislator regarding TCA 8-31-103. You assured me, when we discussed the matter several weeks ago, that the statute was not being violated," Jones wrote. "Please provide to me documentation that I can rely upon in responding to the inquiry."

In response, the DA's office provided the state a 2016 email from Melydia Clewell to Pinkston in which she compiled salaries of other public information officers to ask for a pay raise.

"As I mentioned when we talked, I realize there may be funding limitations and it might be difficult to get my salary closer to the average range as quickly as I would like," Clewell wrote to the DA in 2016. "Please know that I appreciate your willingness to consider my request. This is not at all how the process worked in my previous media career [understatement] and I am grateful to you for hearing me out."

Effective Aug. 1, Pinkston has moved his wife to the county, where she is making $91,000 annually, according to the Hamilton County Human Resources Department on Friday.

According to state personnel records, Melydia Clewell was making $87,948 per year in June. When she was hired in 2015, she was paid $56,964 annually.

Clewell has a background in television journalism. She started in the DA's office as a public information officer and has more recently functioned as chief of staff.

The county's human resources administrator, Sandra Ellis, told the Times Free Press that another employee was moved to the state payroll to make room for Melydia Clewell within the DA's county-funded budget, which has a limited dollar amount and a cap of funded positions. She declined to identify the employee.

By not exceeding the budget positions or dollar amount, Pinkston was able to make the change without the approval of the Hamilton County Commission, which has called for him to make a public appearance to explain the ongoing nepotism discussion.

Pinkston declined the first two invitations by the commission made before the change and has not yet appeared before the funding body.

No paperwork had been filed as of Friday to move Kerry Clewell's employment to the county, but personnel records obtained by the Times Free Press last month show his $48,992 salary is already supplemented with $14,000 from the county.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County district attorney's brother-in-law receives pay from county)

Even if both Clewells are moved to the county's payroll, Gardenhire said there needs to be accountability for what he believes are violations of the law.

"I was concerned about state money being used to violate the law, but I'm really concerned about a law enforcement official continuing to play games with the budget and continuing this charade," Gardenhire said by phone Friday.

"The constitutional officers who are district attorneys have a unique protection from political influence, as they should, but not when they're violating the law," he added.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County DA's brother-in-law acted as investigator on high profile case)

Gardenhire said he could not comment on whether he was asking state agencies to investigate the DA's office.

The newspaper has repeatedly attempted to discuss the matter with Pinkston or Garner and submitted dozens of written questions to allow a chance for the office to respond over the past three months.

Pinkston released a statement in May defending his actions, calling the hires both legally and ethically sound.

"I will continue to serve the people of the 11th Judicial District with integrity and diligence," Pinkston's statement said. "This will be the only statement I make on this matter."

(Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston defends office after revelations of marriage to subordinate)

In the May statement, emailed to media in response to reports and questions by the Times Free Press, Pinkston also announced he will seek re-election after his eight-year term expires in 2022.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

Upcoming Events