Hamilton County District Attorney married employee, hired brother-in-law

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.
photo 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.

Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston came under scrutiny Wednesday for apparently marrying an employee and hiring her brother.

During a routine budget hearing, in which departments and agencies of the Hamilton County government present their budget requests to the county's board of commissioners, Pinkston presented a request for a pay increase for some of his employees.

"It is an increase for what's called experienced service credits," Pinkston said, asking for a 4% increase to provide higher wages for his county-funded prosecutors and criminal investigators to match those in his office whose pay is funded by the state.

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

"Those experienced service raises mirror state-legislated pay increases for prosecutors and state-funded criminal investigators," he said.

Then, Commissioner Tim Boyd asked Pinkston an unusual 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.

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

After the hearing, Boyd told the Times Free Press that he asked the question after receiving an anonymous email that morning.

In the email addressed to Boyd, the sender claimed to be an employee of the DA's office who had major concerns about Pinkston - who had apparently married his chief of staff Melydia Clewell while he was her supervisor and later hired her brother, Kerry Clewell.

"Melydia Clewell's salary started out as $58,190 yearly, but it appears she has received some significant questionable raises. Her salary in 2021 was $87,948," the email said.

"In addition, Melydia Clewell's brother, Kerry Clewell, was hired last year during the pandemic and an email was sent throughout the office introducing him as a new 'Investigator' that has raised many eyebrows," the email said. "Employees are fearful to report anything, because they will be punished if they do - regardless of what anyone says, including Neal Pinkston, both Melydia and Kerry Clewell's direct supervisor."

photo Staff File Photo by Jeff Guenther / Melydia Clewell

The Times Free Press called and left voicemail and text messages with Pinkston, Melydia Clewell and Kerry Clewell on Wednesday afternoon. None of the three responded.

Approached at his home in Chattanooga late Wednesday, Pinkston declined to comment for this story.

"I answered his questions," he said in reference to Boyd.

Asked if he was in fact married to Clewell, Pinkston closed the door and did not respond.

Pinkston, the district attorney general for the 11th Judicial District - which includes all of Hamilton County - was elected to the position in 2014 for an 8-year term.

His office is funded partly by the county and partly by the state.

An official at the county confirmed that Melydia Clewell worked in the DA's office with county funding at one point, until 2016. Records from the state show that she is now employed by the state to work in the DA's office as a "public information officer" at a rate of $7,329 per month, or $87,948 a year.

According to her LinkedIn profile, Clewell has worked under Pinkston since 2015.

Before that, she lists work experience in television news, as an assignment manager at WRCB-TV3 and WTVC-TV9, and as an anchor and reporter for NewsChannel9 from 1992 to 2003.

As for her brother, state records show Kerry Clewell working as a "DA secretary" for the DA's office for $2,916 per month, or $34,992 per year.

His LinkedIn profile shows he was previously an athletic trainer for the Colorado Rockies and for a physical therapy center in Alabama.

While there are 138 people listed as DA secretaries across the state, Melydia Clewell is the only employee in the state with the title "DA public information officer," according to the state's employee database.

Public records obtained Wednesday by the Times Free Press show that Pinkston and Clewell received a marriage certificate in Marion County, Tennessee, in November 2019, and the document lists Kerry Clewell as the preacher who performed the marriage.

Perhaps because the certificate was obtained in a neighboring county, it has not previously drawn public attention.

Boyd told the Times Free Press late Wednesday that he didn't care which government was paying the Clewells.

"Some of them [Pinkston's employees] are state-funded and some are county, but I wanted to make sure, based on that email, no county money was going to any of his relatives," Boyd said.

"I don't care what pocket the money is coming out of. I don't like the thought of the DA employing his relatives by marriage."

Tennessee law states, "Within each governmental entity, no state employees who are relatives shall be placed within the same direct line of supervision whereby one relative is responsible for supervising the job performance or work activities of another relative."

The laws defines governmental entity to include the judicial branch of state government, and it includes spouse and brother-in-law in the definition of relatives.

Staff writer Ben Benton contributed to this report.

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