Hamilton County DA moves wife and brother-in-law onto county payroll, with raises

Staff File Photo / District attorney Neal Pinkston
Staff File Photo / District attorney Neal Pinkston

Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston has now moved both his wife and brother-in-law to the county's payroll instead of the state payroll amid concerns about a law against nepotism among state employees.

Pinkston, who has served as the top prosecutor for Tennessee's 11th Judicial District since 2014, married a subordinate, Melydia Clewell, in 2019 and hired her brother, Kerry Clewell, as an investigator in 2020.

In May, a county commissioner asked the DA during a budget hearing whether any of his relatives were being paid by the county. At the time, Pinkston said they were not.

Pinkston moved Melydia Clewell, who functions as his chief of staff, to the county payroll Aug. 1, raising her pay from $87,948 a year to $91,000.

He moved Kerry Clewell to the county's payroll Sept. 1, according to the county's Department of Human Resources, at a salary of $50,600 a year. His pay on the state payroll was $48,992, including $14,000 in supplemental funds from the county.

Kerry Clewell was moved exactly one month after his sister was placed on the county payroll, and two months after the new budget was completed.

After the Times Free Press first reported on the relationships in May, state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, suggested the district attorney was violating state law that does not allow one relative to supervise another within state government.

On Friday, when asked about the changes in payroll, Gardenhire said he had "turned it over and it is under investigation," but said he couldn't say who was investigating it.

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

The county's human resources administrator, Sandra Ellis, told the Times Free Press in August that another employee was moved to the state payroll to make room for Melydia Clewell within the DA's county-funded budget, which has a limited dollar amount and a cap of 12 funded positions. On Friday, she confirmed another employee had been moved to make room for Kerry Clewell.

Because the trades were made between the county and state sides of the DA's payroll, Pinkston was able to make the changes without the approval of the Hamilton County Commission, members of which have repeatedly asked him to appear before them to answer questions, to no avail.

Pinkston declined at least three invitations by the commission and has not yet appeared before the panel, which is now being asked to consider revoking county funds from Pinkston's budget.

"Unknown to me when I passed out the documents this past Wednesday about Pinkston's wife's salary being paid by the county, I have learned today that his brother-in-law's salary is now being supplemented by the county," Commissioner Tim Boyd, R-Chattanooga, wrote in an email to his colleagues Friday, after being made aware of the move by the Times Free Press.

Boyd, who raised the issue in May by asking if the county was paying any of Pinkston's relatives, had proposed revoking the county's optional funding to the district attorney's office if he continued to refuse the commission's invitation.

"This is a blatant assault on the people's trust in the DA's department and a slap in the commission's face after telling the commissioners that 'no' county funds would be used to pay his relatives when he appeared before the commission on May 12, 2021," Boyd said in the email. "County funding to his department should be suspended Oct. 1, 2021."

Other commissioners echoed concerns about Pinkston's lack of response after Boyd's proposal Wednesday, but none told the newspaper they support the idea of revoking funding.

Commissioner Chip Baker, R-Chattanooga, said Pinkston owed the county answers and by dragging the issue out, he was "making a mountain out of an ant hill."

Commissioner Greg Martin, R-Hixson, said the commission needed to let the state investigate the issue, if there was one, because the commission "is just the funding body."

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

The newspaper has repeatedly attempted to discuss the matter with Pinkston or his spokesperson and has submitted dozens of written questions to allow a chance for the office to respond over the past three months. Pinkston released a statement in May defending his actions, calling the hires both legally and ethically sound.

"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."

Pinkston also accused Boyd of pursuing the 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 release of damaging information if the person did not withdraw.

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

In the statement, Pinkston also announced he will seek re-election after his eight-year term expires in 2022.

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

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