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

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.

Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston defended his marriage to a subordinate in his office on Thursday, saying his management decisions are "both legal and ethical."

The Times Free Press on Thursday reported that Pinkston married his chief of staff, Melydia Clewell, in November 2019, getting a marriage certificate in Marion County that drew no attention in Hamilton County.

Tennessee law forbids state employees from supervising relatives, and much of Pinkston's office - including salaries for both Clewell and her brother - is funded by the state, as part of the state system of justice.

"After working for years together, Melydia Clewell and I discovered we had more than simply our shared interest in our jobs," Pinkston's statement said. "As many other people have discovered, a mature love can develop over time between friends, and that is what happened in our lives. Marriage is a private matter, but as I plan to seek re-election as district attorney, I'm happy to tell you that Melydia and I have committed our lives in marriage. We are blessed."

He did not mention Kerry Clewell, his brother-in-law, or explain how the man came to be employed as an investigator.

In the statement, Pinkston said he intends to run for re-election when his eight-year term expires in 2022.

The Times Free Press reported that Melydia Clewell, a former television news anchor, reporter and manager, has had significant increases in pay since starting in his office in 2015. Her salary is $87,948 a year. Pinkston indicated she was not given special treatment.

"At least 18 of my employees have received substantial raises during my tenure as we have worked to bring their government salaries in line with today's competitive market," his statement said.

He also noted that others in government are relatives of one another, including nine people in his own office. His initial statement did not say whether any of them supervise one another, but he later clarified that none of them do.

Pinkston called the controversy a distraction.

"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."

The staffing issue surfaced on Wednesday when Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd asked Pinkston during a budget hearing whether he had any relatives on his county-funded staff.

Pinkston, whose wife and brother-in-law are in a state-funded portion of his staff, answered no. Later in the day, the Times Free Press obtained the couple's marriage certificate and broke the news of the relationship.

In his statement Thursday, Pinkston suggested that Boyd was motivated to mention the staffing issue by a 2018 indictment in which Pinkston tried to prosecute Boyd for allegedly threatening a political opponent with damaging information if he didn't drop out of the race. The charges were later dismissed.

"I can only surmise that this relates to his previous prosecution by my office for extortion. Because I refused to handle his case differently than I would any other citizen, my management decisions - which are both legal and ethical - are being portrayed in a deceptively negative light," Pinkston's statement said.

In an email to reporters on Thursday, Boyd did not address the old legal case and noted that he never made any accusations against Pinkston.

photo Staff Photo by Jeff Guenther / Melydia Clewell.

"His spin on my question is not worth a comment," Boyd told reporters. "However, for the record everyone needs to remember, I asked him one simple question during the budget hearings, and he answered to my satisfaction.

"I have made no accusations either way about him or his hiring practices. If this matter is a distraction to him, it is of his own doing, not mine," Boyd wrote. "If he has committed no wrongdoing ethically or otherwise, he should not even care about the information being reported and certainly should not be deflecting this issue back to me."

Boyd said late Thursday that he would seek a state audit of the office.

Pinkston, communications director Bruce Garner and both of the Clewells have not responded to over a dozen phone calls, emails, texts and voicemails since Wednesday. Pinkston declined comment in person when approached at his home Wednesday night.

When the Times Free Press attempted to contact Pinkston and Clewell at their office in the Hamilton County Courts Building on Thursday, an employee said neither of them were in the office.

The newspaper has sent a list of more than 30 questions that remain unanswered to Pinkston's office, including when the romantic relationship began and whether the supervisory relationships comply with state law. The newspaper has also asked a number of questions about the recruitment process for both of the Clewells' jobs.

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

Upcoming Events