Hamilton County district attorney candidate Coty Wamp on Wednesday suggested incumbent Neal Pinkston may have used campaign funds to hire a private investigator to look into her amid a heated primary election race.
The Republican's comments during a news conference came a day after charges were dismissed in a neighborhood dispute in Soddy-Daisy in which Pinkston, also a Republican, claimed Wamp tampered with a witness and obstructed justice.
"I would assume it was a private investigation toward me," Wamp said of the expenditure. "If it was a private investigation toward someone else, we'd have an even bigger problem."
Wamp cited Pinkston's campaign finance report released Monday, which shows that Pinkston's campaign paid $750 to Private Investigators of Bradley County.
The expenditure was listed as being paid on Dec. 14.
Pinkston declined to say what he spent the money on, but issued an emailed statement saying, "It's a shame to impugn the integrity of this office and all of my employees who work hard on a daily basis to do the right thing."
"These are more baseless allegations," he said. "My expenditures are in accordance with state law. Facts and evidence are important, but Ms. Wamp routinely supplies none and continues to question my integrity. While I am working daily as the district attorney to prosecute violent criminals, she spends her time maligning me, my entire staff and the dignity of the office of the district attorney general."
Wamp also used the time at the news conference to slam Pinkston as a "black eye" on the district attorney's office for what she called his "disgraceful" behavior in a Jan. 6 referral he made to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation that alleged she had illegally interfered in a gunshot incident just days before. The victims changed their stories and clear Hugo Garcia Padilla, 40, of wrongdoing.
"The handling of this situation by our district attorney was nothing short of disgraceful," Wamp said. "Elected district attorneys across the state have the privilege of being able to request TBI investigations. To use this privilege as a political weapon - asking for an investigation into your own political opponent - is not only an abuse of power, it is a disservice to the office you hold and to those who elected you."
The state of Tennessee moved to dismiss charges against Padilla on Tuesday during an arraignment hearing in front of Soddy-Daisy Judge Marty Lasley.
Nashville Assistant District Attorney Tammy Meade, who took over the case due to concerns about conflicts of interest if Pinkston were to oversee it, said it was clear police had arrested the wrong man, as Wamp had contended.
Padilla had initially been charged with reckless endangerment and two counts of aggravated assault after a neighborhood argument on Barbee Road resulted in a bullet being fired into the ground.
Later, however, police were notified they had arrested the wrong suspect and the victims instead said the suspect was Hugo Garcia Robles, who lives a block away and shares a similar name.
Meade, who said the victims did not recant their initial story but rather it was simply a matter of mistaken identity, added that the description given to police was vague in the first place.
"Prosecutors aren't allowed to talk about ongoing investigations, so I can't say much," Pinkston said in an emailed statement when asked about the outcome of the gunshot case.
He defended his decision to refer the matter of Wamp's involvement to the TBI.
"Political optics and campaign rhetoric don't belong in the DA's office," Pinkston said. "The Hamilton County sheriff and the Board of Professional Responsibility agreed with my decision, yet ultimately that decision is mine."
Meade will stay on the Soddy-Daisy case as potential warrants for Robles' arrest are approved by Lasley and also will continue to review Pinkston's allegations against Wamp.
Contact Logan Hullinger at [email protected] or 814-319-5158. Follow him on Twitter @LoganHullinger.