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Staff file photo by Doug Strickland / District attorney Neal Pinkston gives a statement in the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Courts Building in April 2018.

Being disingenuous seems popular with public officials these days. Even local ones. Even some in law enforcement and in the judicial system.

Witness: Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston, our lead county prosecutor, who in November 2019 married his subordinate, his office's chief of staff Melydia Clewell — or his public information officer, depending on whether you read the Hamilton County District Attorney General's Office website or whether you read her state job title.

What's more, Pinkston last year chose to employ his wife's brother, Kerry Clewell, as an investigator — or a DA secretary, depending, again, on whether you were privy to the DA's office email announcing Kerry's hire or whether you're looking at state employee records.

On Wednesday in a routine county budget hearing, Pinkston answered a county commissioner's question as he presented a budget request which includes 4% pay increases for county-funded employees to match those in his office who are paid by the state.

Commissioner Tim Boyd asked Pinkston: "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.

"No. They're not," Pinkston replied.

Technically that answer may be true. County money isn't supposed to be paying either of the Clewells. State money funds their work. Practically speaking, Pinkston told the truth but not all of the facts.

State law reads: "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." The law also defines governmental entity to include the judicial branch of state government, and it includes spouse and brother-in-law in the definition of relatives.

Records from the state show that Melydia Clewell is employed by the state to work in the DA's office as a "public information officer" at a rate of $7,329 per month, or $87,948 a year. A county official confirms that she worked in the DA's office as a county employee until 2016. Her LinkedIn profile states she has worked under Pinkston since 2015. Public records obtained Wednesday by the Times Free Press show Pinkston and Clewell received a marriage certificate in neighboring Marion County in late 2019, and the document lists Kerry Clewell as the person who performed the marriage.

State records also show Kerry Clewell working as a "DA secretary" for the DA's office for $2,916 per month, or $34,992 per year. But according to an email addressed to Boyd from a sender claiming to be an employee of the DA's office with major concerns about Pinkston, Kerry Clewell "was hired last year during the pandemic and an email was sent throughout the office introducing him as a new 'Investigator' ..."

The email to Boyd notes that Kerry Clewell's hire "has raised many eyebrows." That would seemingly be understandable since Kerry's LinkedIn profile states he was previously an athletic trainer for the Colorado Rockies and for a physical therapy center in Alabama.

The email sent to Boyd continues: "Employees are fearful to report anything, because they will be punished if they do — regardless of what anyone says, including Neal Pinkston, both Melydia and Kerry Clewell's direct supervisor."

On Thursday, Bruce Garner, the DA's office communications director (according to the DA's website), issued a statement for Pinkston, which reads, in part:

"I have done nothing wrong, and that includes my procedures for hiring or paying employees. It is surprising that Commissioner Tim Boyd isolated my office regarding relatives on staff when he failed to scrutinize the other county offices with similar situations. I can only surmise that this relates to his previous prosecution by my office for extortion. Because I refused to handle his case differently than I would any other citizen, my management decisions — which are both legal and ethical — are being portrayed in a deceptively negative light.

"After working for years together, Melydia Clewell and I discovered we had more than simply our shared interest in our jobs. As many other people have discovered, a mature love can develop over time between friends and that is what happened in our lives. Marriage is a private matter, but as I plan to seek re-election as District Attorney, I'm happy to tell you that Melydia and I have committed our lives in marriage. ... "

The statement continues: "In my office, there are currently nine employees with relatives also on our staff. None of these employees report directly to a relative. Each of these employees is well-qualified for the positions they hold and the public is well-served by their hard work. This will be the only statement I make on this matter."

Pinkston didn't answer the TFP's questions of who supervises whom. Nor did he answer whether he had, before the marriage or Kerry Clewell's hire, consulted with or disclosed the relationships to any state or county human resources official or to any other other state or county officials.

Boyd told the Times Free Press late Wednesday: "I don't care what pocket the money is coming out of. I don't like the thought of the DA employing his relatives by marriage."

That should be an obvious concern: With so many people in Pinkston's office related to each other, might family connections sometimes trump accountability in justice?

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