Grand juries are a panel of county residents who listen to a bill of evidence presented by prosecutors or law enforcement officers and decide whether it’s enough to charge someone with a serious crime requiring a trial. If the grand jury decides to indict it returns what’s called a “true bill.” If not, it returns a “no-bill.”
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Two McMinn County grand jurors in 2010 complained to an investigator that the jury foreman and an assistant district attorney tried to influence their votes in a politically fraught case, records show.
The grand jury in July of that year voted not to indict sheriff candidate Joe Guy for campaign finance violations. Guy went on to win the election and is now McMinn County sheriff.
Later, two grand jurors told an investigator they felt improper influence was brought to bear in the jury room by foreman Joel Riley and Paul Rush, assistant district attorney in the 10th Judicial District.
No action was taken, records show. None of the other 10 grand jurors who sat on the case was interviewed, and the investigation was closed.
But both grand jurors told the Times Free Press they still believe Riley and Rush tried to influence their votes.
“I can’t tell you word for word or try to quote anyone, but I can tell you they were swayed to vote it out to where it wouldn’t be a true bill,” one of the grand jurors said in a June interview.
Both grand jurors asked not to be named because they have sworn an oath of secrecy about their service. A judge released them from the oath to speak to a state investigator about the allegations.
Guy called the issue “politically motivated.”
“If they’re going to give it to another DA to present, they’re still making sure it gets presented. I can’t imagine why they would fight against themselves,” Guy told the Times Free Press.
Rush’s attorney, Dan Ripper, said in an emailed statement there was “no basis to believe that Paul did anything wrong.”
Riley did not return a call seeking comment.
COUSINS ON THE BALLOT
The 2010 McMinn sheriff’s race was interesting because the Republican and Democratic candidates were kin.
Joe Guy, the Republican who defeated incumbent Steve Frisbie in the primary, was a longtime assistant to then-County Mayor John Gentry. He is a well-known historian who has written several books on regional history.
His Democratic challenger was his uncle, David Guy, a career lawman who took a leave of absence from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to run for sheriff.
David Guy declined to comment for this story.
David Guy’s employment meant the TBI had to recuse itself from investigating when a McMinn County resident called about allegedly false campaign contributions to Joe Guy.
District Attorney General Steve Bebb recused the 10th District from the case as well, and it was handed to Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols. The Times Free Press obtained the investigative file.
The initial complaint alleged that a woman who worked for Gentry and Joe Guy told family members that Guy had given her and her husband cash and asked them to write him checks as campaign contributions.
The investigation was straightforward: Nichols’ investigator, Ross Haynes, contacted the couple, Dan and Joy Early. According to the Earlys’ statements, Guy told them he had a number of cash contributions in $5, $10 and $20 amounts, totaling $2,000. He asked the couple to put it in their bank account and write him two $1,000 checks, which they did.
Both told Haynes they didn’t think they were doing anything wrong, and Joy Early said Guy told her he had checked with a lawyer to make sure.
Guy’s statement was slightly different. He told Haynes that Joy Early had come to him with the small contributions. He said he believed they were from deputies and others who didn’t want Frisbie to know they were giving to Guy.
IN THE JURY ROOM
The grand jurors said that on July 20, 2010, they already had heard several cases that day with Riley as foreman and Rush as prosecutor.
Then Riley told the group a special prosecutor was coming because the 10th District had recused itself. He said he couldn’t serve as foreman because he knew the person that the case was about, so he named one of the jurors to act as foreman.
One juror told Haynes that Riley and Rush “let us in on the fact that there was an investigation, allegations brought up against a sheriff’s candidate and that they didn’t know what or if anything we were supposed to know about the case before you and Mr. Nichols presented it.
“Then they did say that they thought that it was really nothing to it. Mr. Riley did tell the jury that he had known Joe for a long time, that Joe was a straight-up man, that he had never known him to do anything wrong or anything illegal, that he had raised a good family came from a good family, that he had worked for the county for many years and he knew him as a friend and that he felt like … there was nothing to this. It was more of a campaign attack. It was more of a political attack brought on against Joe.
“So to me it was more of them saying I want this no-billed. Because they have told us on occasions which ones to no-bill.”
When the investigator asked if Rush made any comment, the juror said, “Yes, he told me it was a political play.”
In an interview with the Times Free Press, the juror said Rush had said something like, “Look at the politics. Look at the timeframe here. This is something that has just been pushed through; if there was anything to it, something would have already been done.”
The juror tried to start a debate but got nowhere.
“The evidence was there. The facts were there. They had already been told to no-bill this,” the juror said.
The other juror told a similar story.
“We were prepped beforehand that something was coming up on a case and a person was coming out of Knox County to present it. We knew going in who it was,” the other juror told the Times Free Press. “Paul Rush and Mr. Riley both spoke to us” before DA Nichols came in.
“I felt like they were trying to guide our feelings.”
Ripper, Rush’s attorney, said there’s no evidence his client did anything wrong.
“He recused himself from a case that was not his to prosecute, he had nothing to do with the appointment of substitute or replacement grand jurors, and according to the statements you have, he never was involved in the presentation of the case or in the decision of the matter. ... (He) could hardly be said to have influenced the decision.”
Something else was odd about that case, both jurors said.
There were 16 appointed panel members. It takes 12 to hold a vote and 10 to return an indictment. There were several absences on July 20 and, when Riley recused himself, the panel was two short, they said.
The McMinn County Circuit Court clerk’s official tally for the day counted 12 jurors, including Riley.
The foreman called two substitute jurors from the county’s alternate panel. One arrived late and missed part of the DA’s presentation on the charges of tampering with government records and making a false entry on an election document, the jurors said.
Both substitute jurors were among the eight who voted not to indict, the jurors said.
The investigative file also noted that Joe Guy posted the news shortly afterward on his Facebook page. The Daily Post-Athenian carried a story in its July 23-25 editions quoting him saying the case had been no-billed.
That was more than a week before the grand jury was due to make its report on the indictments handed up for that session.
Guy told the Times Free Press he believed one of the grand jurors who supported his opponent for sheriff let the news of the no-bill leak and filed the complaint.
“It’s my opinion there was no impropriety. The case was politically motivated,” he said.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at email@example.com 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 ...