In less than a year, at least one elected official or government employee has been charged criminally in four of the six counties that make up Tennessee’s 12th Judicial District.
“It does seem strange that you would have that many cases involving public officials come up at the same time,” said Mike Taylor, the district attorney general for nearly two decades in Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Rhea and Sequatchie counties.
“But to say that it’s indicative of a general failure of public officials, they’re not those kind of cases,” Taylor said.
In just the past month, Rhea County Executive George Thacker was charged with patronizing a prostitute in a Knoxville sting, and Winchester City Councilman Cheyne Stewart was arrested with another man on sexual assault charges detailed in a 16-count indictment.
On Friday, a Knox County judge gave Thacker judicial diversion. If he stays out of trouble for six months, his record will be cleared.
In September, Sequatchie County Commissioner Barney Slatton was charged with solicitation of a minor and sexual battery. In January, he was charged with two counts of aggravated statutory rape involving another juvenile.
In October, former Marion County Elections Administrator Holly Henegar and her husband, former Haletown Volunteer Fire Department Treasurer Billy Joe Henegar, were arrested on felony theft and official misconduct charges in separate cases. The investigation started with a complaint filed early in 2010 and led to Holly Henegar’s resignation in April 2010.
Stewart and Slatton have denied the charges and vowed vigorous defenses.
Thacker, who was charged in Knox County, has not spoken publicly about his arrest. The Henegars also have not spoken publicly since charges were leveled.
Taylor said the Henegars’ cases are characteristic of public corruption allegations, but the cases involving Slatton, Stewart and Thacker are of a more personal nature.
“The other cases were incidents that really had no connection with their duties,” he said.
Yet public officials make headlines when they are charged with any crime, he said.
“If you’re in a quiet area that you wouldn’t think ‘that kind of thing’ is going on, when it does happen, it generates a lot of attention,” he said.
Sometimes that attention can generate more investigations and arrests, he added.
“In Mrs. Henegar’s case, the investigation into her led to the allegations against her husband,” he said.
According to a state comptroller’s office report released last month, Henegar told officials that she asked several people to participate in a scheme to funnel money to her disabled husband.
According to the report, Henegar “admitted adding names to payroll certification lists for individuals who did not work, and that her husband was paid with county funds using names of relatives and friends.”
More than $700,000 of taxpayer funds were stolen from Tennessee county governments during the fiscal year ending June 30, 2010, according to the comptroller’s report and newspaper archives.
The roundup includes the Henegars’ case, which tallies $21,170 missing from the elections office and $94,823 missing from the fire department, according to the report. Combined, the cases account for more than 16 percent of the total amount of missing public funds in the state for the year.
TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm said the agency’s case file system won’t allow her to quantify the number of “official misconduct” cases in a particular jurisdiction, but “I can tell you that I don’t believe these cases are increasing,” she said.
“[T]hey remain steady and are fairly routine for TBI to work at the request of all the district attorneys general across the state,” Helm said.
She said she couldn’t discuss any open investigations.
Dan Richman, a criminal law expert at Columbia Law School in New York, said it appears to be just a coincidence that the sex-related charges against Thacker, Slatton and Stewart cropped up in a single judicial district.
“When dealing with public officials, sometimes the media coverage of one allegation will spur a victim to report what he or she might not otherwise have reported,” Richman said.
“The counter possibility to that is that it’s copycat allegations and not something that spurred someone to report something that happened.”
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...