Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery this week became the latest statewide official to weigh in on an apparent nepotism situation in the office of Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston.
Slatery on Wednesday wrote to Pinkston in response to a report by the state comptroller, Jason Mumpower, who found a violation of the Tennessee State Employees Uniform Nepotism Policy Act.
"The act prohibits state employees who are relatives from being placed in the same direct line of supervision where one relative supervises the work activities or job performance of the other relative," Slatery wrote to Pinkston. "At the conclusion of its investigation, the comptroller's office determined that your office violated the act because the chief of staff (your wife) and a DAG investigator (your brother-in-law) — both state employees within a governmental entity as defined by the act — are related to you, the elected District Attorney General, and in your direct line of supervision. I agree with the comptroller's determination."
Slatery goes on to discuss an effort by Pinkston to use county funding instead of state funding to pay the salaries of his wife, Melydia Clewell, and her brother, Kerry Clewell.
"I understand you may believe that my office has interpreted the act to suggest that the DAG's office can avoid violating the act by making your wife and brother-in-law county-funded employees," Slatery wrote, "however, as outlined above, this is not our position. And to my knowledge, you never sought advice or an opinion from my office about whether the DAG's Office was violating the act. Hopefully, this letter provides clarity about why your office violated the act even though your wife and brother-in-law's positions are county-funded, and you understand how to resolve the violation."
The issue arose in May 2021, when county Commissioner Tim Boyd, R-East Brainerd, asked at a budget hearing whether Pinkston was paying any relatives out of the county budget. Pinkston answered no. The Times Free Press later reported Pinkston had married Melydia Clewell with little public attention in November 2019 and went on to hire her brother. The transfer from state funding to county funding for their salaries came later in 2021, along with raises.
Melydia Clewell's pay rose from $87,948 a year to $91,000. Kerry Clewell's rose from $48,992 per year to $50,600 a year.
Pinkston's office declined comment Friday.
Earlier in the week, Pinkston announced he had placed the two on leave in light of the comptroller's findings. His office — on Wednesday and again Friday — declined to say whether they were on paid or unpaid leave.
County Mayor Jim Coppinger told the Times Free Press in a phone conversation Friday afternoon that no paperwork had been put through his finance office to place the siblings on unpaid leave.
"Unless we're told otherwise, they'll be paid," Coppinger said.
Pinkston last year said the employment of his relatives was legally and ethically sound. He blamed the controversy on Boyd, saying the commissioner was retaliating because Pinkston prosecuted Boyd in 2018 on extortion charges. Prosecutors claimed Boyd tried to threaten a political rival with release of damaging information if the person did not withdraw, charges that were dismissed.
Boyd on Friday said Pinkston's move to place his relatives on leave — apparently paid leave — was inadequate to address the nepotism violation.
"He did a shell game again to relieve some pressure on him," Boyd said by phone. "It appears he did something. But that something was not enough."
Boyd wrote a letter to Coppinger on Friday calling on Coppinger to ask Pinkston to fire his relatives and then step down.
"Considering the fact DAG Pinkston stood before the full commission and the citizens of Hamilton County on Dec. 8, 2021, and after being asked multiple times if he was familiar with the state's nepotism act, he vehemently denied being in violation of the act, I am requesting that your office ask DAG Pinkston to terminate his wife and brother-in law effective immediately, and upon their termination, he himself resigns his position effective immediately as the 11th District Attorney General," Boyd wrote. "Any DAG that either does not know our state laws, does not seek counsel to better understand our state laws or purposefully tries to circumvent the laws of our state to their own favor should not be serving the public as their chief law enforcement agent."
Coppinger told the Times Free Press he does not intend to ask Pinkston to do that.
"I would not interject myself into that at all," Coppinger said.