Some local and state lawmakers say the state attorney general's office needs to investigate allegations of misconduct, misuse of taxpayer money and property and civil rights violations in the 10th Judicial District.
The issues were raised in a recent Chattanooga Times Free Press series.
Area lawmakers including state Sen. Mike Bell and Reps. Eric Watson and Kevin Brooks all said constituents have been bombarding them with messages and questions since the series was published Aug. 12-17 and detailed allegations of multiple problems under District Attorney General Steve Bebb's leadership.
"I believe my constituents would like to see this matter cleared up," said Bell, a Riceville Republican who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Bell said he has spoken to the Senate leadership and to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
"It is my understanding that they [TBI] are looking into the allegations," Bell said. "I hope that there is an investigation that would get to the bottom of this one way or the other, and that would bring some type of closure to this situation."
Watson, a Cleveland Republican, former captain in the Bradley County Sheriff's Office and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a written statement that "the integrity of the system of justice in the Tenth District and in our State should not be determined by mere rumors -- nor should the reputation of Steve Bebb.
"If rumors or statements alleging misconduct are true, action should take place, either voluntarily by District Attorney Bebb or by the appropriate authorities including the Tennessee House of Representatives, to ensure that our laws are administered properly," Watson wrote. "District Attorney Bebb has been seriously maligned by the information which has been presented. If the alleged charges are untrue, he should be cleared of these allegations by the appropriate authorities and the rumors should be dispelled."
Brooks, also a Cleveland Republican, said he was deferring to his colleagues' Judiciary Committee experience.
"Obviously they are the ones in the criminal investigations business," Brooks said Friday.
Contacted by telephone Friday, Bebb said, "I'm not going to comment to you. You're not going to get a comment from me."
The six-day series outlined numerous issues in the four-county district including:
• Bebb driving a seized drug car, accepting taxpayer-paid mileage reimbursements and spending money from a dedicated crime fund on office Christmas parties.
• Shelving TBI investigations into allegations of misconduct by law enforcement officers.
• Allegations that an assistant district attorney tried to sway a grand jury's votes against indicting a candidate for sheriff.
• Questions about a drug task force that seizes cars and cash from motorists allegedly linked to drug trafficking, but sometimes doesn't bring criminal charges.
• Tens of thousands of dollars laid out for meals, motels and travel by the former head of the 10th District Drug Task Force that could not be documented as legitimate expenditures.
• Missteps and misbehavior by prosecutors, including allegedly hiding evidence from defense attorneys, that violated defendants' civil rights.
State Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the series raises "some serious allegations that need to be looked into" and that the TBI should investigate any criminal allegations.
But some lawmakers said privately they felt little support for an investigation from the state attorney general's office, which has authority to open a probe.
Asked whether the AG's office is dragging its feet, spokeswoman Sharon Curtis-Flair said, "We can't confirm or deny whether we may or may not be investigating anything, or if we've had conversations with legislators or public officials about your questions."
The TBI has authority under state law to open its own investigation into public corruption allegations. Spokeswoman Kristin Helm said Friday that the agency could not comment whether an investigation is under way or pending.
The Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility, the disciplinary agency for attorneys, may initiate investigations into alleged ethical violations. Nancy Jones, chief disciplinary counsel for the board, said Friday that, under Supreme Court rules, she cannot confirm or deny whether any investigation is under way.
The executive committee of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, the administrative agency for the state's 31 judicial districts, has not discussed the issue, Executive Director Wally Kirby said in an email Friday.
"In order for the officers to become involved there would have to be clear evidence of wrongdoing (such as in the Bill Gibson Matter a few years ago). Newspaper articles do not make for clear and convincing evidence as things are often taken out of context and only a small part of the story is reported. And then oftentimes not totally accurately," Kirby said.
Gibson was the 13th District attorney general in 2006 when his law license was suspended for improper conduct. He resigned in 2008 when an impeachment proceeding began in the state House, and he was disbarred in 2009.
Watson said that impeachment or removal proceedings for an elected official start in the House with a committee of investigation. If the full House votes to return a Bill of Impeachment, the state's chief justice would preside over a trial in the Senate. It takes a two-thirds vote in the Senate to impeach.
Beavers said she believed the House and Senate may hold joint hearings in the coming session on several justice-related issues.
"There have been questions surrounding drug task forces all over the state," Beavers said. "I'm also concerned that we don't have a better procedure to address the ethics of the district attorneys, to address complaints that maybe don't rise to the level of criminal but just for ethical violations."
And she sees a problem with the grand jury process and what she called "lifelong chairmen."
"We just want the truth to come out and for issues to be addressed for the good of the citizens and the taxpayers," she said.
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 ...