Cooper: Attorney general's shifting of employees amounts to a less than transparent 'shell game'

Staff file photo / Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston speaks during a RICO case call-in in Judge Tom Greenholtz's courtroom on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

What is the general public to make of the kerfuffle over the Hamilton County district attorney general's employing of relatives in his office? Is it much ado about nothing or a symptom of something worse?

Unfortunately, we think it's more the latter than the former.

If all were on the up and up, the situation would have ended with Attorney General Neal Pinkston's answer to Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd in a budget hearing in May as to whether he had any relatives on the county payroll.

"No," he said. "They're not."

Technically, Pinkston was right. His wife, Melydia Clewell, who is the office's chief of staff and is paid $87,984 annually, and her brother, Kerry Clewell, who is an investigator and is paid $48,992 annually, are on the state payroll.

Unsatisfied, Boyd asked state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, to initiate an audit into the district attorney's office and payroll, and Gardenhire's June 23 letter to Guy Jones, the director of the state District Attorney's Conference, cited state law that said "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."

In a July 7 reply to Gardenhire, Jones said Pinkston assured him after the May incident that the provisions of the law were being followed. However, he added that "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 [the law] are being followed."

While Hamilton County has a similar policy to the state that prevents the supervision of relatives, apparently the district attorney's office and that of other offices run by elected officials, known as constitutional offices, do not have to abide by the standard county policy.

So, to sum up, the county's top prosecutor was knowingly employing relatives, who were being paid by the state under different job titles. He told Boyd, then Jones in conversations in May and June, that he was in his right to do so. Then, when the inquiry wasn't closed, he said he planned to shift the employees back under the county payroll, apparently because his constitutional office will permit it.

His actions remind us of everything the average voter says they despise about politics and some politicians - that, despite whatever public face they present, they will do whatever is necessary behind the scenes to gain the ends they desire.

In this case, Pinkston moved around his relatives/employees on his chessboard, landing them each time on a spot that was technically correct for the moment but ethically may have been something different.

To us, this smacks of smarmy behavior for the man county residents elected to see the law is followed and that the bad guys, if guilty, get locked up.

Time will tell if voters agree since Pinkston has said he plans to run for a second term in 2022.

Gardenhire, for one, is not satisfied. He called the district attorney's moving around of his employees a "shell game," and told Jones in a July 12 letter he was "disappointed" with the lack of follow-up on the situation, said he believes Jones is "reluctant to insist on correcting this issue," and had the impression Jones feels "I [will be] stupid enough to let this slide."

He also believes Pinkston is dragging his foot to move the employees onto county payroll - the county told the Times Free Press no effort had been made to move them - and wonders if the foot-dragging is being done to allow one or both employees to be vested in certain benefits.

Similarly, Boyd told the newspaper putting the employees on the county payroll is exactly what he asked about in the budget hearing, and that "I do not want these people to be paid by county taxpayer money."

Pinkston's office - belying the transparency that you especially would hope would come from the attorney general - refused to answer questions submitted by the newspaper about the issue. In May when the subject first arose, he said he would "continue to serve the people of the 11th Judicial District with integrity and diligence" and that would be "the only statement I make on this matter."

While the attorney general may remain mum, Gardenhire has copied Tennessee Treasurer David Lillard on his letter to Jones and does not intend to let the matter slide.

If Pinkston receives a primary or general election opponent next year - a rarity for Hamilton County attorneys general in the recent past - they also may have something to say on the issue.