Since Jan. 1, 2017, Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor has worked on at least 80 cases in probate court as a private lawyer, according to public records obtained by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, which included handling the estate of the mother of former Mayor Jim Coppinger.
Taylor's outside work has attracted scrutiny from Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp, who cited it as part of his justification for attempting to fire Taylor in October, but officials have noted that a clause in Taylor's contract appears to allow him to work with outside clients.
"It is understood that this position is deemed a full-time occupation although the attorney may engage in any other non-conflicting activities on a professional basis," Taylor's contract with the county states.
The agreement was approved by the County Commission and Coppinger in June 2021.
Taylor and his attorney, Neil Thomas, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Coppinger said by phone Friday that he and his three brothers needed an attorney to help them navigate the complexities of their mother's estate after she died in August 2017. Although Coppinger said he couldn't recall the exact amount, he confirmed the family paid Taylor for his assistance.
"There was a minimal amount of work that needed to be done, but it had to be done accurately," Coppinger said. "I never felt like it was a conflict because ... the county government was not involved in that at all. It was a family matter -- not just for me but for my family, my brothers. It wasn't me specifically that hired him. It was my brothers and the estate."
Court documents obtained through a public records request indicate Taylor received $1,000 for his work on Laura Dell Coppinger's estate. Court filings signed by Taylor in the case listed his office number at the Hamilton County Courthouse, the phone number for the Hamilton County Attorney's Office and his county email -- indicating he was using public resources on the private matter.
Taylor's involvement included helping the brothers sell a small farm their mother owned on Ooltewah-Georgetown Road, Coppinger said, which her neighbor asked to purchase after her death.
Coppinger said most of the conversations about Taylor's work on his mother's estate occurred over the phone, and he never had a meeting about his mother's estate in Taylor's county office. Coppinger said he's not sure whether Taylor worked on the case during county business hours. The former mayor said he and his brothers simply needed someone who could help them handle the paperwork.
Records: Hamilton County attorney worked on 80 estate cases, including mother of former mayor
"It was really clear cut," Coppinger said. "We were just trying to get the property probated, and, of course, he knew all the people in the Courthouse. He worked with all of them. He knew where to go, when to do it ... so he was the most logical person."
Taylor has served as county attorney for almost three decades. Taylor's annual salary as of Oct. 14 was $180,420.
Coppinger said Taylor's contract has contained the provision about "non-conflicting activities on a professional basis" since before his time as mayor.
"I worked with Rheubin for 16 years, both as a commissioner and as a mayor," Coppinger said. "I never found Rheubin to be anything but totally aboveboard. He's totally a person of integrity and credibility."
Coppinger said he never felt like that work interfered with Taylor's ability to serve as county attorney.
"In my experience, he always put the county first," Coppinger said. "Always."
In an Oct. 14 news release announcing the mayor's decision to terminate Taylor, Chief of Staff Claire McVay said Wamp had concerns about private legal work Taylor conducts during business hours, a breach of attorney-client privilege with the Mayor's Office and previous admissions that Taylor's office had destroyed documents related to open records requests. No details were provided about the private work.
Wamp reiterated his reservations about Taylor's private clients in an interview with the Times Free Press on Friday.
"I'll give you a couple analogies," he said. "I'm all for a guy who works at the highway department who at night runs a woodworking operation to make a little extra money. Good for him. ... If the sheriff in the middle of the workday was running a private security operation, that would not be good."
Wamp added that the County Attorney's Office is not efficient. Employees see it as "the place things go to die," he said, and it's "not a well-kept secret" in the legal community that it's an unproductive operation.
"I was at the Medical Examiner's Office the other day," Wamp said. "There's bodies in a refrigerated trailer out back, and you know we ask what's the holdup? Some of them had been there as long as six months."
"Paperwork in the County Attorney's Office," Wamp said.
According to numbers provided by Wamp, the budget for the County Attorney's Office has grown from $889,500 in fiscal year 2017 to more than $1.5 million in 2022. Despite that boost, he said, the office has gone hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget in the past three fiscal years: $333,700 in 2022, $584,300 in 2021 and $241,800 in 2020.
Taylor's name is on three of the county's 40 ongoing and scheduled cases, Wamp said, suggesting Taylor should be handling more cases himself.
"Our County Attorney's Office is broken," Wamp said. "It's not a good operation."
Following the mayor's attempt to fire him in mid-October, Taylor has been granted a temporary restraining order to prevent Wamp from terminating his health benefits, which were set to end Oct. 31. A hearing will occur Nov. 15. Taylor continues to work with unanimous support from the County Commission.
A complaint filed by Taylor's attorney in Chancery Court on Oct. 31 states Wamp "caused" the county's information technology department on Oct. 14 to confiscate Taylor's computer, "the contents of which contained information protected by the attorney-client privilege."
Taylor complained to the Mayor's Office a few days later and demanded that the contents be returned. Taylor is now asking the court to require Wamp to return documents covered by attorney-client privilege and destroy any copies.
Wamp said Friday that members of his staff haven't searched the contents of Taylor's computer, which Taylor said in a letter to Wamp would violate attorney-client privilege, the mayor stated.
"Unless it becomes absolutely necessary, we don't want to cause unnecessary problems," Wamp said. "We don't want to cause problems for his former clients who he left in a lurch by doing their business on public resources."
During the County Commission's meeting Oct. 19, three community members spoke on Taylor's behalf. Gerald Mason, who has known Taylor for more than 40 years and is a member of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church where Taylor serves as a pastor, said Taylor has been unfairly maligned, calling him a proud, humble person.
"He has excellent character and integrity," Mason told the Times Free Press immediately after the October meeting. "I've never known anybody who couldn't deal with Rheubin Taylor. He's worked in this position for 28 years mainly with Republicans ... They're the ones who gave him the contract."
Asked if it's appropriate for Taylor to have private work he's completing on the side, Commission Chairman Chip Baker, R-Signal Mountain, said by phone that it's allowed in his contract and it's been the past practice.
"I would like to see that changed in the future," Baker said.
If people are employed by the county full time, he said, they should work for the county full time. Baker said he has no reason to believe Taylor hasn't appropriately balanced his full-time responsibilities to the county with his private work, but employees' primary duties should be clear.
Contact David Floyd at email@example.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.