The tenure of 10th District Drug Task Force director Mike Hall included allegations of improper spending and questions about drug use. Here, Hall makes an arrest.Shane McMillan
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A seven-month Times Free Press investigation showed police officers going unpunished in the 10th Judicial District for conduct that would have landed civilians in jail.
At the same time, three current or former law officers claim in court documents that District Attorney General Steve Bebb of the 10th Judicial District helped get them fired for what all claim are trumped-up reasons.
Former 10th District Drug Task Force agent Sammie McNelley was fired by DTF Director Mike Hall in December 2009. He filed suit, and in March a Bradley County chancellor ruled that the firing violated his due process rights and ordered a new hearing.
Separate lawsuits by former Cleveland police detectives Duff Brumley and Suzanne Jackson are pending.
Brumley and Jackson both assert in their lawsuits that Bebb wrote letters to Police Chief Wes Snyder, saying he had lost confidence in them and would no longer allow them to testify in 10th District criminal cases.
In Brumley’s case, Bebb had publicly blamed the veteran detective for a mistrial against one defendant in the Valentine’s Day triple slayings in Cleveland, Tenn.
Brumley’s lawsuit in Bradley County Circuit Court asserts that Bebb’s letter was retaliation for the detective having investigated drug-use allegations against Hall. The city and police department deny the allegations.
Brumley’s lawsuit alleges Snyder used the letter as the basis for terminating Brumley, who had crossed swords repeatedly with his chief.
Bebb wrote a very similar letter in Jackson’s case, according to her lawsuit, filed in January in U.S. District Court.
That July, Bebb had written to Snyder that he would no longer prosecute cases Jackson worked on because of allegations that she mishandled evidence, the lawsuit states.
Jackson, who had 19 years on the Cleveland police force, was fired in September 2011 based on the letter, according to her lawsuit.
Jackson denies mishandling evidence and claims in the suit that male officers who had done the same things were not investigated or disciplined.
She claims she was the target of sexual discrimination and harassment and was fired in retaliation for filing complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The city and police department deny the allegations.
When Bebb made Hall the task director in 2006, Hall promoted McNelley to sergeant. In 2008, McNelley became the task force’s liaison to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, working out of the DEA’s Chattanooga office.
But there was friction between Hall and McNelley. In November 2009, Hall’s top aide, Lt. Don Williams, wrote a memo blaming McNelley for stirring up trouble in the task force.
Williams wrote that it was “common knowledge” that McNelley thought “he should be the Director or someone with more experience” and that McNelley was “resentful” of Hall’s top-ranking officers.
The memo blamed McNelley for “a division between employees loyal to Director Hall and friends of Sammie” that led to low morale and supervision problems.
Williams also claimed that McNelley was misusing his DTF cellphone by making personal calls and listing the number on ads and billboard signs while trying to sell some property.
On Dec. 4, 2009, Hall called McNelley to the DTF headquarters in Charleston, Tenn., and, with Williams and Bebb present, fired him.
McNelley appealed to the drug task force board, which upheld the firing, and then filed suit in McMinn County against the state and the 10th DTF challenging the termination process.
McNelley claimed Williams had given him the OK to use the phone and that others had also misused DTF cellphones and not been fired.
He also claimed denial of due process: That the appeals board members wrongly were told he could be fired without cause; that he wasn’t adequately advised of charges or given time to prepare; that the DTF failed to turn over documents he needed for his defense, and that Hall, the chief witness against him, was not sworn in and walked out of the hearing at the start of cross-examination by McNelley’s attorney.
As part of McNelley’s lawsuit, Bebb gave a sworn deposition where court records indicate he spoke untruthfully under oath.
During the deposition McNelley’s lawyer, Chattanooga attorney Bryan Hoss, asked Bebb about his knowledge of the firing.
Bebb said more than once that Hall had told him McNelley was causing problems in the task force, but that he didn’t tell Hall how to run the task force.
Then came this exchange:
Hoss: “And as I understand your testimony today about this dissension, that McNelley caused this dissension within the task force, it sounds like you didn’t have any personal knowledge of it, but you just — is it fair to say you just took Mike Hall’s word that he was causing dissension? Is that fair?”
Bebb agreed, but said Williams also had mentioned McNelley causing dissension.
However, unbeknownst to Bebb or Hall, McNelley had brought an audio recorder to the meeting. On the recording, Bebb says explicitly that other people had told him McNelley was the problem.
In the tape transcript, which was evidence in McNelley’s lawsuit, Hall told McNelley he had asked Bebb for advice.
Hall: “So I talked to the general and, uh, he gave a suggestion, and his suggestion is to, uh, terminate you.” He offered McNelley a month’s pay if he would resign.
Then McNelley appealed to Bebb for help.
McNelley: “Coach, listen. You have known me for 18 years ... to be an honest man of integrity and morals.”
Bebb: “I have. And I think you’re a good police officer, but I think you’re a cause of dissension up here.”
McNelley: “Coach, I’m not.”
Bebb: “Well, let me just tell you. I haven’t even told Mike (Hall) or Don (Williams). I had another agent come to me three months ago and told me that — that there’s a lot of problems up here and that Sammie McNelley is behind them.”
McNelley: “Coach, I’m not. I’m not.”
Bebb: “And a city police officer also told me the same thing too. ... For at least a year I have been hearing, Sammie McNelley, Sammie McNelley, Sammie McNelley, a city officer, drug task force officer.”
The firing cost McNelley his paycheck and affected his pension, although he later was hired by the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office and placed back in the same position as DEA liaison.
On March 19, Bradley Chancellor Jerri Bryant ruled in McNelley’s favor. Her three-page order said the firing violated his right to due process and ordered that a new hearing be held.
McNelley said in an interview that the chancellor’s decision to overturn the appeal process doesn’t mean he’ll get his old job back.
As of this week, a hearing hasn’t been set yet. But he wants a lawful process when it finally happens, he said.
“The decision to terminate me needs to be overturned, and I need to receive back pay and benefits for all this time. I want what was wrong made right,” he said.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Subscribe to Judy on Facebook at Facebook.com/JudyCTFP.
Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...