published Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

Tennessee lawmakers demand to see Bebb probe files

NASHVILLE — Senate Judiciary Committee members on Thursday directed the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to let them view files of the agency's probe into allegations involving 10th District Attorney Steve Bebb of Cleveland.

Seven members, including Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, voted in favor of the resolution. Two members, Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney, of Jackson, abstained.

A similar effort in the House stalled at least temporarily after Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, blocked approval of nine bills and resolutions on various matters, only one of which involved Bebb, by the three-member Delayed Bills Committee. Approval requires all three members.

House GOP leaders say they intend to put that back on track today.

Reached by telephone Tuesday night, Bebb said, "I really don't want to make any comment right now."

The effort to obtain the TBI's investigation of Bebb comes after Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper on March 25 released his long-awaited report on Bebb and alleged misconduct in the 10th Judicial District, which includes Bradley, Polk, McMinn and Monroe counties.

Relying on the TBI investigation, Cooper criticized Bebb's office for poor judgment, mismanagement and deficient record keeping. But Cooper said he found no prosecutable evidence against Bebb on allegations of prosecutorial and financial misconduct, speaking untruthfully under oath and other offenses.

Bell and Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, had called on Cooper to investigate following questions raised about Bebb last year in a Times Free Press series.

"This is not an issue I take up lightly," Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, told colleagues late Tuesday afternoon. "It is not an issue that is meant to reveal information that is confidential. But it is a serious issue and it's important for the Judiciary Committee to exercise its oversight ability."

He said there have been "public allegations made of wrongdoing and a public report that's been published by our [state] attorney general."

Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney, of Jackson, questioned why Senate Resolution 40 was needed, saying, "put me at ease. When is it when we feel like we should proceed with this type of resolution. ... What is a triggering offense?"

Cooper's report says there was no criminal wrongdoing, Finney noted.

Kelsey said he believes moving ahead is warranted "just to review. The General Assembly does have the power to impeach" under the state Constitution as well as the power to remove, he said.

"When there are public allegations ... and there has been a public investigation made by the attorney general on someone whose job it is to enforce the laws, then I think it is incumbent upon the Legislature to look into the matter and do so with a presumption of innocence," Kelsey said.

He said his intention is that after the conclusion of the committee's investigation the panel would "make a public announcement of any findings or conclusions reached by the members so this does not drag on."

In its series last summer, the Times Free Press investigated allegations that under Bebb, the prosecutor's office botched important cases through ineptness or misconduct, misused taxpayer money and played favorites in criminal prosecutions.

During the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, legislative attorney Tom Tighe said in response to Finney's questions that he was not aware of any investigation by the state's Board of Professional Responsibility, which oversees attorneys and investigates ethical violations.

Tighe recalled a 2008 matter in which a district attorney from Cookeville resigned as lawmakers moved to oust him based on an investigation by the board.

According to news accounts at the time, District Attorney Bill Gibson's law license was suspended by the board after he privately offered advice to a murder suspect and a convicted felon.

Evidently mixing the roles of Christian counselor and DA, Gibson advised the murder suspect to reject a bargain which had been offered by Gibson's own staff, according to news accounts.

Earlier Tuesday, the House Delayed Bills Committee met. Besides Fitzhugh, the other two members are House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga.

Fitzhugh said he objected to allowing any of the measures, some of which included Democrats' bills or resolutions, to come up so late with lawmakers hoping to adjourn next week or soon after.

He later said he had not spoken with Bebb, also a Democrat.

Republicans said unless Fitzhugh changes his mind, they can proceed today to suspend House rules on the floor and allow the various measures to be introduced, including House Resolution 60, which authorizes the viewing of the TBI files.

Suspending the rules requires a two-thirds majority of those present. Republicans have 70 of the 99 members.

Not long after the House Delayed Bills Committee meeting ended, former District Attorney Richard Fisher, a one-time Democratic state representative who sometimes acts as a special prosecutor for Bebb, was in a legislative hallway.

Asked what brought him to the Capitol, Fisher said "to see what they're doing to Bebb."

He said he came on his own behalf. Bebb said he did not ask him to do so.

Fisher said he did not talk to Fitzhugh prior to the Delayed Bills Committee meeting but did run into him later. He also talked to Harwell but declined to go into detail.

Harwell, who served with Fisher, said, "Richard just stopped by to say hello. ... The issue [Bebb] came up, but I brought it up. I said, 'What's your 2 cents?' He said, 'You do what you think is the right thing to do' and that was the extent of it."

The resolution is being handled by House Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chairman Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport. Watson, who is chairman of the full Criminal Justice Committee "is part of the law enforcement community in the affected judicial district. He has therefore removed himself from this process," Shipley said in a statement.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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