Investigators for the Tennessee Comptroller's Office have found that Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston was violating state nepotism law by employing his wife and her brother.
Hours after the report was released Wednesday, Pinkston announced in a statement that two employees in his office had been put on leave and that he is "reviewing the recommendations of the comptroller's office and may have additional comments at a later date."
His office declined to specify whether the leave was paid or unpaid.
The report signed by Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower states that investigators in his office determined the employment of Chief of Staff Melydia Clewell, Pinkston's wife, and her brother, investigator Kerry Clewell, was in violation of the Tennessee State Employees Uniform Nepotism Policy Act.
The act states that "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."
A county district attorney is a position established by the state and is considered a state agency, which therefore makes any employee in the office considered a state employee, according to the report.
The relationships first came to light in May 2021 when county Commissioner Tim Boyd asked at a budget hearing whether Pinkston employed any relatives with county funds. Pinkston answered no.
The Times Free Press then reported that Pinkston had married a subordinate, Melydia Clewell, and hired her brother, Kerry Clewell.
"Since the chief of staff was hired in March 2015, and the DAG investigator was hired in August 2020, it appears that the salaries for both the chief of staff and the DAG investigator positions were paid through state budget appropriations," the report states.
State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, during an interview in his legislative office on Wednesday, said that he was the one who requested the investigation.
"I'm sad that it had to come to this," Gardenhire said. "It's a shame that General Pinkston drew this out like he did when he had many people telling him that it was wrong. He had to have known it was wrong or he wouldn't have snuck out of town and kept his marriage secret and then quietly tried to play games with shifting resources to cover up his obvious, flagrant violation of that particular law."
Pinkston married Melydia Clewell - first hired as a public information officer and later promoted to chief of staff - in November 2019 in Marion County. Perhaps because the union took place in a neighboring county, the union did not draw attention in Hamilton County until the Times Free Press reported on it in 2021.
From the beginning, Pinkston denied wrongdoing, saying his management decisions "are both legal and ethical." He then transferred the relatives to the county portion of his payroll instead of the state portion, in an effort to remove them from the shadow of state nepotism laws.
The state report seems to indicate that remedy is inadequate.
"The DAG's office transferred the funding source for the chief of staff and the DAG investigator from state to county government after receiving an inquiry from an outside entity," the report states. "All employees of the DAG's office are considered state employees regardless of the funding source of their salaries."
In a Wednesday phone interview, Boyd said the best thing for Pinkston to do is "resign and take his wife and brother-in-law with him."
"It makes me very pleased that the comptroller's investigation showed the same conclusions that I had made," Boyd said. "It reinforces the fact that nobody's above the law, and it's a sad case that our DA thinks he is, and in fact, is on record telling the public that he was not in violation of any laws. He just lied to the people. If he didn't know the law, why's he the DA? If he knew the law, why didn't he know he was in violation of it?"
Pinkston has suggested that Boyd was motivated to press 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.
Both Melydia and Kerry Clewell received raises after being transferred to the county payroll. Melydia Clewell's raise was from $87,948 a year to $91,000. Kerry Clewell's was from $48,992 to $50,600 a year.
However, the report notes that the investigators found no appearance of favoritism in their salary levels.
The comptroller compared raises for Melydia Clewell to four other employees between 2015 and 2021. Clewell saw a 61% salary increase, with the four other employees averaging about a 55% increase.
"Nepotism statutes and policies are designed to avoid conflicts of interest and to reduce favoritism or the appearance of favoritism," the report said. "Although the DAG's office is in violation of the Nepotism Act, comptroller investigators did not find any evidence of favoritism regarding salary increases for the chief of staff as compared to other administrative staff within the office for the period reviewed. Comptroller investigators could not determine if any other types of favoritism were given to the relatives of the DAG."
The report's release comes amid a heated primary campaign between Pinkston and fellow Republican Coty Wamp, who serves as general counsel for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office and has criticized Pinkston for employing family members. The election is May 3.
"The District Attorney has proven time and time again that he either doesn't know the law or simply doesn't care about it," Wamp said in a statement. "Hiring family members to work directly underneath you is not only a violation of state law, which one would assume is of the utmost importance to an elected district attorney, it is also a violation of public trust.
"When elected, I will use the salary of the DA's wife and brother-in-law to create new prosecutorial positions," she said. "A prosecutor dedicated to gang and violent crime and a prosecutor dedicated to child sex abuse cases are two of my first priorities when I get in office. This behavior is the epitome of why the public has lost faith and trust in government. The findings from the comptroller are disappointing but not surprising."
When the Times Free Press first broke the story about Pinkston's relatives, one question his office did not answer was about the line of supervision in the office - who supervised whom. According to the state report, Pinkston told the state that other people in the office supervised his relatives - not the DA himself. According to the state report, that line of response did not ease the nepotism concern.
"The DAG has ultimate responsibility for and is in control of his office and the employees within his office. Comptroller investigators were advised that the chief of staff is supervised by the executive administrator in the DAG's office, and the DAG investigator is supervised by an assistant district attorney general," the report said. "The DAG cannot evade the prohibitions set forth in the act by shifting supervisory responsibility to other members of the office because both the executive administrator and the assistant district attorney general are ultimately supervised by the DAG and therefore remain in his direct line of supervision."
The report concludes, "The 11th Judicial District Attorney General should resolve the violation of the Nepotism Act within his office by means of transfer of the chief of staff and the DAG investigator to another governmental entity or termination of their employment."
Copies of the report were forwarded to Gov. Bill Lee and Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, the report states.
Andy Sher contributed to this report from Nashville.
Contact Logan Hullinger at firstname.lastname@example.org or 814-319-5158. Follow him on Twitter @LoganHullinger.
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