Chester Heathington, an independent candidate for Hamilton County Clerk, has levied accusations of nepotism against long-time incumbent William Knowles, who counters that he follows the law and there are multiple layers of supervision between him and the one relative remaining in his office, his grandson.
Heathington, who also ran for Chattanooga mayor in 2013, claims Knowles violated state law by employing several relatives, including his son, son-in-law, grandson and a nephew.
"The whole county knows what this man has been doing for 50 years, and they turned a blind eye," Heathington said by phone. "This is not good government, it's bad government."
Knowles has served as county clerk for almost 50 years and told the Chattanooga Times Free Press by phone this week that Heathington is sharing incorrect information. His son, William F. Knowles Jr., and son-in-law, Donald Kunselman, no longer work in the clerk's office, Knowles said.
Additionally, he has never had a nephew working in the clerk's office, Knowles said, and there are four layers of supervision between him and his grandson, who he said works full-time in the mailroom.
His son, Knowles Jr., left roughly five or six years ago, he said, and his son-in-law, Kunselman, retired almost a year ago. Knowles said he did not directly supervise them while they worked in the office.
Under state law, Knowles said, it's not prohibited to have a relative working in his office as long as they're separated by supervisors.
In an ad, Heathington also claimed Knowles has a secretary who receives an annual salary of about $90,000, but Knowles said he doesn't have a secretary and folded those responsibilities into other jobs a long time ago.
Knowles said he did the same with an accountant role and his chief deputy, combining them to eliminate a position, adding that he's been frugal in the management of the office.
Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston, who lost his bid for re-election during the May Republican primary, faced scrutiny after it came to light he had married an employee, who was chief of staff, and hired her brother as an investigator. Both have since resigned.
A report from the Tennessee Comptroller's Office found the district attorney general or DAG had violated state nepotism law. The report stated layers of supervision between relatives weren't enough to ease concerns about nepotism.
"The DAG cannot evade the prohibitions set forth in the act by shifting supervisory responsibility to other members of the office," the report stated.
Knowles said there isn't a similarity between the accusations against Pinkston and his situation in the clerk's office.
"I try to go by the rules," Knowles said.
Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said in an email Friday most of the county's constitutional officers are not under the county's personnel policy, which prohibits family members being hired by or being under the direct supervision of another family member. The county clerk's office is one of those that has its own personnel policy, he said.
The handbook for the clerk's office states that, within each division or department, deputy clerks should not be placed within the same direct line of supervision whereby one relative is responsible for supervising the job performance or work activities of another.
There are three candidates for clerk on the ballot on Aug. 4: Heathington, Knowles and independent Nivek Rucker.