Hamilton County DA accused of 'shell game' for relatives on payroll

Official says Pinkston agreed to get his wife and her brother paid by the county instead of the state

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / District attorney Neal Pinkston speaks with members of the media during a press conference at the corner of S. Willow Street and E. 18th Street in Chattanooga on Wednesday, April 14, 2021.
Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / District attorney Neal Pinkston speaks with members of the media during a press conference at the corner of S. Willow Street and E. 18th Street in Chattanooga on Wednesday, April 14, 2021.

Emails from state officials claim Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston plans to change the payroll source for relatives employed in his office to comply with state nepotism laws, spurring new concerns about his administration and the state agency overseeing district attorneys.

Pinkston came under fire in May after the Times Free Press reported that he had married one subordinate, Melydia Clewell, and later hired her brother, Kerry Clewell, and that he was listing them both with different titles in his office than they had on state payroll records.

On May 13, after asking about Pinkston's relatives in a budget hearing, Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd requested that state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, initiate an audit into the District Attorney's Office and payroll.

In June, Gardenhire wrote an email to Guy Jones, director of the District Attorney's Conference, a state agency tasked with administration and coordination among Tennessee's 32 district attorney offices.

In the email, obtained by the Times Free Press, Gardenhire asked Jones to "take steps to encourage General Pinkston to come into compliance with Tennessee law," after raising concerns that Pinkston's supervision of one or more relatives may violate state code.

In his June email, Gardenhire cited a provision of Tennessee Code which says "no state employees who are relatives shall be placed within the same direct line of supervision whereby one (1) relative is responsible for supervising the job performance or work activities of another relative."

Gardenhire also cited a code that explicitly addresses violations of that policy created by marriage, requiring that "such violation shall be resolved by means of such transfer within the governmental entity, transfer to another governmental entity or resignation as may be necessary to remove such violation."

Records show that Jones responded to Gardenhire last week, saying that the conference "certainly respects and intends to abide by the provisions of the statute.

"Gen. Pinkston and I first discussed this matter on May 13, after I learned about the situation. At that time, he assured me that the provisions of §8-31-102 were being followed," Jones wrote on July 7.

Then he said Pinkston, whose office includes state and county-funded employees, would move the two relatives to the county's payroll to avoid violating state policy.

"Gen. Pinkston has now informed me that both individuals are being removed from state payroll positions and transferred to county-funded positions, which he believes should serve to assure you that the provisions of §8-31-102 are being followed. It is further my understanding that one position change will be completed by Aug. 1," Jones wrote.

While Hamilton County general government has a similar policy preventing supervision of relatives, the DA's office falls out of the parameters of typical county employees - as do other offices run by elected officials, known as constitutional officers.

Bruce Garner, a spokesperson for the Hamilton County DA's office, declined comment when he and Pinkston were asked a series of emailed questions for this story. Pinkston did not respond.

Seeking specifics

The Times Free Press posed these questions this week to the DA’s office, which declined to answer:> Is it the intention of the DA’s office to transfer Melydia and Kerry Clewell to be county employees?> If so, what is the timeframe for each of them being switched over? Have you taken any steps to do so?> Does anyone at the county know of this plan? What would the approval process be?> In his email to Sen. Todd Gardenhire, the director of the District Attorney’s Conference mentions one of the transfers is taking place on Aug. 1. Is that correct? What is the reason for that specific date?> Do you believe switching the employees to the county payroll addresses the issues raised by Gardenhire and county Commissioner Tim Boyd?> Do you believe that the office is in compliance with state law, specifically 8-31-103 and 8-31-104?

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

Melydia Clewell, the chief of staff for the DA's office, makes $87,984 annually. Kerry Clewell, an investigator, is paid $48,992 a year. Neither of their salaries are contained in the county budget for the fiscal year that started July 1. In fact, the reason Boyd brought up the issue on May 13 was to clarify that the two were not being paid by the county.

The DA's office would likely need to seek an additional $136,000 from the county for its budget to maintain their current salaries, plus the cost of benefits for two employees.

According to the Hamilton County Finance Department, neither Melydia nor Kerry Clewell have been moved to the county payroll as of this week, nor has there been any effort made to do so.

Even if the Clewells change from the state to the county payroll, Gardenhire says the transfer would be too little, too late.

In his most recent email to the conference, sent Monday, Gardenhire wrote about his "profound disappointment" in the conference's response to the issue.

"Your organization has a responsibility to police your members and make sure they, of all people, follow the law and its intent," Gardenhire wrote, criticizing Jones for the amount of time it has taken to address concerns about Pinkston.

"I am asking you as director of the District Attorneys General Conference to find out the above concerns I have and insist General Pinkston follow the law and its intent. Let's talk about the intent," Gardenhire continues.

"It sounds to me that he is playing a 'shell game' by shifting one job title from a 'state payroll position' to a 'county-funded position,'" Gardenhire writes. "General Pinkston may be able to pull this off because of a loophole in the Hamilton County policy position, but I believe the intent is clear as what is the proper protocol."

In the letter, Gardenhire also expresses concern for how a violation of state law in the DA's office could affect cases being prosecuted by Pinkston. He also asks why Pinkston would wait until August to remedy the pay situation, suggesting that if the delay was purposeful to allow an employee to vest in certain benefits, it could be considered fraud.

Gardenhire ended with a call to action.

"Guy, I really get the impression you are reluctant to insist on correcting this issue that General Pinkston has created on his own, and you think I [am] stupid enough to let this slide," he wrote. "Please use your position to correct this and find out why it has not been done."

The issue of Pinkston's relatives working in his office initially came to light in May at the budget hearing where Boyd asked Pinkston a question.

"Of the county employees that the county's responsible to have on our payroll, so to speak, are any of those employees a relative of you?" Boyd asked Pinkston on May 12, after receiving a complaint from a resident about the situation.

"No. They're not," Pinkston replied, ending the short exchange.

The Times Free Press later identified the employees and reported about the November 2019 marriage - which had never been made public, and which was performed in a neighboring county, meaning there were no records of it in Hamilton County.

Boyd objected to the idea of moving the Clewells to the county payroll to avoid a state conflict of interest.

"That's a direct conflict with what I asked him during the budget hearing," Boyd told the Times Free Press on Thursday after learning of the emails between state officials. "I do not want these people to be paid by county taxpayer money."

The Times Free Press requested comment from Jones through the District Attorney's Conference on Wednesday and Thursday. A spokesperson said Jones was out of the country and would not be available and did not say when he'd return when asked.

The Times Free Press also asked to speak to Assistant Director Zoe Sams, who was copied on each of the messages with Gardenhire, and received no response to those requests, other than the statement about Jones.

The director, the highest-ranking member of the conference, is elected by the district attorneys who make up the conference. The DAs oversee his work, and he is subject to removal by a vote of those DAs.

The DA, who was elected to the highest prosecutor role in the county in 2014 and whose first term expires next year, defended his actions in May but did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

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

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