Hamilton County DA appears before commission, keeps funding

District Attorney Neal Pinkston had previously not agreed to be questioned about relatives on his payroll

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / District attorney Neal Pinkston speaks with members of the media during on Wednesday, April 14, 2021.
Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / District attorney Neal Pinkston speaks with members of the media during on Wednesday, April 14, 2021.

Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd, R-Ashwood, dropped his resolution to cut supplemental funding to the district attorney's office Wednesday after District Attorney Neal Pinkston appeared before the panel to answer questions about potential nepotism within his office.

"It would set unbelievable precedents if we cut funding to a constitutional office. He came and answered questions like we asked," said Commissioner Randy Fairbanks, R-Soddy-Daisy. "The voters are Mr. Pinkston's boss, and so after the facts are put out there, they will decide if he's doing stuff they don't like."

Questions first arose about whether Pinkston was employing relatives during a routine budget hearing in May. At that time, Pinkston said he was not. The Times Free Press later reported that Pinkston married a subordinate, Melydia Clewell, in 2019 and hired her brother, Kerry Clewell, in 2020.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County DA accused of 'shell game' for relatives on payroll)

The DA's office gets funding from both the state and county, and Pinkston has taken some heat from state and county officials about the situation.

To avoid running afoul of a state law against state employees supervising their own relatives, he transferred Melydia Clewell to the county payroll in August and Kerry Clewell in September. Both were given raises.

Melydia Clewell's raise as Pinkston's chief of staff was from $87,948 a year to $91,000. Kerry Clewell's raise as an investigator was from $48,992 to $50,600 a year.

On Wednesday, Pinkston said that he gave a "true and correct" answer to the original budget question when it was first posed in May because his relatives were still state employees at that time. He later moved them to the county payroll, he said, because of concerns raised at the state DA's conference in Nashville.

Pinkston alleged that the concerns were raised by Boyd, who denied making any complaints before Pinkston's relatives were moved.

"To be frank, Mr. Boyd, the question was - and this is from documents you've submitted to another state agency complaining about me, various state agencies - 'Are there any relatives on the payroll?' My answer was no, and that was the truth," Pinkston said.

"They were state employees at that time. The answer was true and correct, and then a series of complaints were sent to the DA's conference in Nashville. I did not want them to have to continue to deal with those comments and concerns so I looked into transferring them to county employees. Before I did that, my office had conversations with the county mayor's office, the county attorney and the county finance office. No irregularities existed, and so I made that transition."

(READ MORE: Hamilton County district attorney's brother-in-law receives pay from county)

The Times Free Press has also reported that, even before the Clewells were transferred to the county payroll, some county money was used to supplement their state salaries.

Personnel records obtained by the Times Free Press showed that, of Kerry Clewell's $48,992 salary, $14,000 was paid by the county supplement, at Pinkston's discretion.

Pinkston's wife, Melydia Clewell, received between $11,350 and $14,000 in county supplements annually from 2016 until August 2020, plus a one-time payment of $4,750 paid by county supplement at Pinkston's request in 2018.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger said it was not unprecedented for employees to be "moved around" after the budget is set, particularly in offices led by independently elected officials like the DA.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County DA moves wife and brother-in-law onto county payroll, with raises)

Asked whether he had violated a state law against state employees supervising their own relatives, Pinkston said he had not because his relatives do not answer directly to him and instead answer to others within his office.

The Times Free Press on May 13 asked Pinkston's office who supervises each of the Clewells, and the question was never answered.

At the commission, Pinkston also questioned why his office was the only one being scrutinized in regard to that law.

"Let's be honest here, everybody in this room knows that there are other county offices that employ relatives who work together," Pinkston said during a heated exchange with Boyd. "So the question becomes, is this a singular attack upon me and my office or are you willing to do an audit of all county offices to address that question? The other context that this needs to be put in is that you have a personal agenda against me. That's very clear."

Pinkston has previously accused Boyd of pursuing the nepotism issue in retaliation for a 2018 extortion indictment brought by Pinkston against Boyd that later was dismissed. The extortion case claimed Boyd tried to threaten a political rival with the release of damaging information if the person did not withdraw from the race.

Boyd said his personal feelings toward Pinkston were irrelevant to the issue at hand.

"Whether I have a personal agenda against you does not allow you to come before this commission with information that you blatantly and knowingly refuted just weeks after telling this commission what your intentions were," Boyd said Wednesday.

"You brought up other department heads that may have relatives in their department. The huge, glaring difference between your budget hearing answers and the budget hearings of those others is the fact that the relatives of those others are listed within the budget and this commission had the opportunity to question it, which we did not here. None of those department heads hid the fact that they intended to move relatives to the county payroll."

Pinkston denied hiding anything and said he had no intention of moving his relatives to the county payroll in May when he was originally asked.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County DA's brother-in-law acted as investigator on high profile case)

"This man hasn't done anything wrong," Commissioner Warren Mackey, D-Lake Vista, said. "The idea was that he lied, but that's been cleared up. The idea was that there were people reporting to family members, and that's been cleared up. I would like to make sure General Pinkston's reputation remains unstained."

The motion to drop the resolution from the agenda passed 5-4.

Those voting in favor were Chip Baker, R-Signal Mountain; Boyd; Steve Highlander, R-Ooltewah; Mackey; and Sabrena Smedley, R-Ooltewah.

Those voting to keep the item on the agenda were Fairbanks; Katherlyn Geter, D-Ridgeside; Greg Martin, R-Hixson; and David Sharpe, D-Chattanooga. Martin said he wanted to take a vote on the resolution so the commission could "be done with it."

Contact Kelcey Caulder at kcaulder@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.

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