Hamilton County DA Neal Pinkston a no-show at commission meeting

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston

Hamilton County commissioners are again calling for District Attorney Neal Pinkston to answer concerns about potential nepotism in his office after he refused to appear before the board.

Commissioner Tim Boyd, R-Chattanooga, said he was "disappointed" that the DA didn't show up to Wednesday's meeting before reiterating his concerns about county funding being used to pay Pinkston's relatives.

"All of these actions over recent years have put a big question mark on the ethical conduct, the truthfulness, the candor with the public. And we as a body need to get to the bottom of it," Boyd said.

Pinkston, who began his eight-year term as the county's prosecutor in 2014, did not respond to requests for comment. He has been under fire this summer after Boyd raised the issue of Pinkston hiring relatives during a routine May budget hearing.

Boyd asked Pinkston as the commission considered his proposed budget whether the county payroll included any of the DA's relatives. Pinkston said no and the discussion ended.

Then the Times Free Press reported that Pinkston had married a subordinate and hired her brother, although they were considered employees on the state portion of Pinkston's budget.

The newspaper went on to report that Pinkston's wife, Melydia Clewell, and her brother, Kerry Clewell, had their state salaries supplemented with county money despite Pinkston's answer to Boyd at the budget hearing.

Melydia Clewell functions as Pinkston's chief of staff, and Kerry Clewell is an investigator.

Starting this month, Pinkston moved Melydia Clewell fully to the county's payroll, as state officials were raising questions about state laws against one relative supervising another on the state payroll.

At Wednesday's commission meeting, Boyd reiterated a series of complaints about Pinkston and the Clewells. He also noted a 2012 opinion by the Tennessee attorney general, then Bob Cooper, which said state law prohibits a public defender - the defense counterparts to district attorneys - from appointing a brother-in-law to be an investigator.

"The Nepotism Act precludes a district public defender from employing his or her brother-in-law as an investigator for the district public defender's office," the opinion reads, referring to the state law that prohibits any employee from directly reporting to his or her relative.

Due to the similarities between this opinion and Pinkston's situation, Boyd again called for Pinkston to explain himself.

Boyd also asked about a discrepancy in which Kerry Clewell is listed as a secretary on state records, but an investigator in the DA's office.

"As Mr. Clewell, his [Pinkston's] brother-in-law, has been introduced to the DA's staff as an investigator, but at the same time is listed with the state as a secretary," Boyd said. "How do you do that? Explain that to this body."

Melydia Clewell is similarly listed as a public information officer in state records, but as chief of staff at the DA's office.

Boyd told the Times Free Press this is the only time in his 12 years on the commission that he remembers a constitutional officer refusing to appear.

Chairman Chip Baker, R-Chattanooga, backed Boyd's calls for Pinkston to appear.

"We've given the DA three options to meet with us, including today," Baker said during the meeting.

Then, he asked the county attorney whether the commission had "any ability to make that happen."

"I guess it's his right not to," Baker said.

"Mr. Chairman, you do not have subpoena power," Attorney Rheubin Taylor said.

Baker told the Times Free Press after the meeting that he wasn't seeking a "witch-hunt" against Pinkston but wanted clarity because the DA's answers about pay had been less than "direct" during the budget hearing.

The chairman said Pinkston, who formerly said he was skipping commission meetings because he was out of town, has now outright declined to come before the body.

Commissioner Greg Martin, R-Hixson, disagreed with Boyd and Baker, saying that the commission was "swerving out of [its] lane" as an appropriations board to demand answers from the DA or make any accusations.

"I would request of Mr. Boyd that you get that to the attorney general," Martin said after being advised by Taylor that it's a state issue given Clewell's status as a state employee.

"Get those to the attorney general, ask him to look at it," Martin said of Boyd's pile of documents. "He's the one who's going to be able to determine if there's been malfeasance."

A spokesperson for the Attorney General's office did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Neither Pinkston nor Bruce Garner, the office's spokesperson, have responded to phone and email requests for comment from the Times Free Press since July, including on Wednesday.

Pinkston, a Republican, released a statement in May defending his actions, calling them both ethically and legally sound, and announcing his re-election campaign for 2022.

He also attributed Boyd's inquiry to a now-dismissed extortion charge he brought against Boyd in 2018, which alleged that Boyd tried to threaten a political opponent with negative information unless he withdrew from the race.

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