Staff File Photo / Hamilton County Attorney General Neal Pinkston says he has done nothing wrong in his practices of hiring and paying employees.

The question from Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd to Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston during budget hearings Wednesday was straightforward.

"Of the county employees that the county's responsible to have on our payroll, so to speak, are any of those employees a relative of you?" Boyd asked.

Pinkston, at that point, had options — either "no" or "no, but ." Technically, "yes" would not have been accurate, either.

"No," he answered Boyd. "They're not."

But the commissioner had information from an anonymous email sent from someone claiming to work in the DA's office that asserted Pinkston's wife, Melydia Clewell, and her brother, Kerry Clewell, worked in the office. He shared that information with the Times Free Press after the hearing.

What made the attorney general's answer to Boyd technically correct was that both employees are paid by the state, which pays for some positions in the office.

The email also stated that Melydia Clewell had been hired at $58,190 a year, then on the county payroll, and now makes $7,329 per month (or $87,948 per year), as a state employee. Her title, according to the same state database that lists her salary, is "DA public information officer," the only one on the database with such a title.

An online staff directory of the district attorney's office lists her as "chief of staff," though it also lists a different "executive administrator" and a different "communications director" (shown on the state database to be a paralegal), which is the job of a public information officer in other agencies. Her Linked-In and Facebook sites list her as a "mission support specialist."

The anonymous email, Thursday's Times Free Press story on the matter and the various staff listings prompted Boyd to look a little deeper. So he said he would make a formal request of state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, to ask for an audit of Pinkston's office by the state comptroller and the state attorney general.

"He may be in violation of state policy," the commissioner said.

Tennessee law states, "Within each governmental entity, 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."

Pinkston, who did not return voicemail and text messages to the newspaper Wednesday and closed the door to a reporter at his home late Wednesday, said in a statement Thursday he had "done nothing wrong, and that includes my procedures for hiring and paying employees." He said no employees report directly to a relative.

But we wonder: If the attorney general has crossed his t's and dotted his i's to make sure everything in his office is legally sound — if not ethically sound, some might say — why would he not have made that fully clear to his staff, at least one of which feels threatened by telling the truth, to Boyd and his fellow commissioners, or to the newspaper?

Pinkston's marriage is his business, but, as an attorney and an elected official accountable to the public, he should have no hesitancy explaining how the county and state pay for different parts of the office and what policy allows his wife and brother-in-law to report to someone else within his office for supervision.

Easy peasy.

But Pinkston chose to answer Boyd with a "no," then called the numerous questions the newspaper posed to him Thursday about the staff, about the hiring of the Clewells, and about their jobs and qualifications a "distraction." And he surmised Boyd must have "isolated" his office for scrutiny not because of the email but because Pinkston's office once prosecuted him for extortion (a charge that eventually was dismissed).

That leaves unanswered such questions as whether he hired Melydia Clewell — initially on the county payroll — when they were already having a relationship, why they chose to have their November 2019 marriage filed in Marion County (maybe because Hamilton County marriages are published in the Times Free Press?), why Kerry Clewell with no previous experience was hired and introduced as an investigator (though listed as a "secretary" on the state database), and why Pinkston once told one newspaper reporter no relationship existed with Clewell and acknowledged to another much later that he and Clewell were married.

Boyd said he didn't "know what else [an audit] might expose," but he said if the attorney general is violating state law and they're bringing the hammer down, "he may be forced to resign. I don't know."

He said he does not know if Pinkston's relationship to Clewell violates county or state policies. But he said he's interested in whether state "money's being used and abused."

The first-term attorney general was elected unopposed in 2014 and faces re-election — and he says he is running — in 2022.

The Hamilton County primaries next year are May 3. Since Pinkston chose not to be fully transparent and forthcoming, we hope the state will make the public's picture of the district attorney's office much clearer by then.