Steve Bebb, district attorney for Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties, resigned today — two months before the end of his term and not a moment too soon. He faced multiple allegations of misusing his office and had been investigated by the TBI and by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which I chair. His story shows the need for judicial reform in Tennessee.
Fortune Magazine recently ranked Tennessee third among U.S. states for public corruption. Having lived through the Tennessee Waltz scandal my first year in the Legislature, I believe it. Public corruption is a black eye on this state, and it is time to make serious changes to the law to address it.
Allegations of misconduct by Bebb were first raised in the Chattanooga Times Free Press newspaper in August 2012. They included threatening prosecution for coercive purposes, personal use of office vehicles and funds, and failure to prosecute law enforcement officers.
In March 2013 the Tennessee attorney general issued a report in which he declined to prosecute Bebb. The Senate Judiciary Committee immediately opened its own investigation of Bebb.
The only remedy available to the Legislature was removal from office, and the investigative resources of the Legislature are limited compared to those of the attorney general. In July 2013, I filed a complaint against Bebb with the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility, which has oversight of the ethical behavior of attorneys and a wide range of disciplinary remedies.
My complaint reported Bebb's possible use of criminal prosecution to coerce an outcome in a civil trial. Allegedly, a husband had recorded conversations of his wife in an effort to discover evidence of infidelity. According to the attorney general report, Bebb threatened the husband with prosecution for wiretapping unless he agreed to give his wife joint custody of their children in their civil divorce lawsuit. When the husband declined, Bebb prosecuted him but later expunged the case when the husband agreed to joint custody. If true, those actions would be a clear violation of the legal ethical rules.
Bebb denied the charges to the BPR. I responded that his denial was in direct contradiction to an earlier written statement he had made. Just three weeks later, the BPR, which is appointed by and answerable to the state Supreme Court, dismissed my complaint. Much to my surprise and chagrin, it did not even bother to ask to see the statement Bebb had made.
Clearly, the mechanisms we have in place for disciplining corruption and unethical behavior in Tennessee are not working. I recommend two specific reforms: 1) give the attorney general the power to prosecute all cases of public corruption, and 2) change how we select the attorney general.
Currently, only district attorneys can bring charges of public corruption against elected officials. These local prosecutors are often too close with their local elected officials or simply not politically powerful enough to prosecute officials in high offices.
If given this power, the attorney general must be held accountable for his action or inaction. The current attorney general had the authority to prosecute Bebb but chose not to do so. He was selected by and answers only to the state Supreme Court. Tennessee is the only state in the nation which selects the attorney general this way. Forty-two states elect their attorneys general, and seven states use elected officials to appoint him.
Until Tennessee makes these two changes, it should expect more remedies along the lines of Steve Bebb's: a two-month-early retirement with full benefits.
Tennessee state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, serves as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.