IS THIS “TRANSPARENCY?”
by Sharon Rondeau
(Nov. 28, 2012) — This morning The Post & Email contacted the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office, a TBI agent, and the office of the Tennessee attorney general to inquire as to the status of an investigation announced late last summer into alleged misconduct within the Tenth Judicial District of the state.
On November 28, we left a voice message for Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) Agent Russ Winkler at 615-744-4336, who we understand has been assigned to the case. Walter Francis Fitzpatrick, III, who has been exposing systemic corruption in eastern Tennessee for more than three years, has reported having called Winkler on multiple occasions and receiving no return call.
The Post & Email also sent an email inquiry about the investigation to the comptroller.
Upon calling the attorney general’s office at 615-741-3491, a man answered and, after we stated that we were a member of the media, directed us to the media contact person, Sharon Curtis-Flair. The man had told us that Ms. Curtis-Flair normally “screens her calls” and advised us to leave a voice message, which we said we would do.
Upon being transferred, Ms. Curtis-Flair unexpectedly answered the call. We identified our publication and stated that we report on government corruption. When we asked if she would be able to provide the status on an investigation allegedly ongoing into malfeasance in the Tenth Judicial District, Ms. Curtis-Flair asked us what the “Tenth Judicial District” was. “I’m not familiar with that,” she said.
We explained that it encompasses the counties of Polk, McMinn, Monroe and Bradley and that on August 28, 2012, The Chattanooga Times Free Press had reported, in addition to the attorney general, that a formal investigation had been commenced into allegations of misconduct by public officials, including members of the prosecutor’s office and Tennessee Highway Patrol.
Ms. Curtis-Flair then said that the attorney general’s office “never comments” on any investigation that is ongoing and that she could neither deny nor confirm that an investigation is ongoing. When we asked if there were any way in which we could obtain more information, she said, “Well, you could find a source, I suppose; you’re the reporter.”
We then communicated to Ms. Curtis-Flair that we have plenty of sources who have reported corruption in the Tenth Judicial District.
When we asked Ms. Curtis-Flair for her name in order to spell it correctly, she interrupted us and said, “And what is your name?” She then asked where the newspaper was located, and we told her. She asked what topics we cover, and we told her “corruption in government.” She then asked for our name again, at which point we said, “Rondeau,” because we had already established that we have the same first name. Ms. Curtis-Flair then said, “You have only one name?”
In our experience, most media liaisons are accustomed to automatically spelling their names for members of the media for the sake of accuracy.
We provided the url of The Post & Email and explained that we are a subscription publication but that about half of our work is available to free subscribers. She responded, “Oh, OK.”
Curtis-Flair gave a statement to Judy Walton of the Times Free Press published on September 8 which read, “Our office and the DA’s Conference have met and are in agreement on how to proceed. The TBI is conducting an investigation at the request of the attorney general and, under the statute, any decision in regard to the district attorney will be made by the attorney general.”
Yet Ms. Curtis-Flair was unaware of what the “Tenth Judicial District” is?
A search of the attorney general’s website under the term “Tenth Judicial District” yields nothing pertinent today. Searches using “TBI” and “Comptroller,” who were included in the announcement of the investigation by the attorney general’s office, yielded similar results for the relevant time frame.
On August 29, 2012, The Times Free Press reported that a former Tennessee attorney general would be heading the investigation into “allegations of misconduct in the 10th Judicial District” and that he would assume the duties of District Attorney General R. Steven Bebb, who is one of the accused and reportedly had asked for a stand-in while the investigation proceeded. However, residents of the Tenth Judicial District report that Bebb is still serving in his position.
The Post & Email contacted the Tenth Judicial District at 423-744-2830 and left a voice message, as the office was closed for lunch, inquiring as to whether or not Mr. Bebb remains the District Attorney General given the announcement of an investigation last summer.
The people of Tennessee are paying the officials’ salaries and benefits. Why are they not demanding transparency?
Update, 5:55 p.m.: The following response was received from the Tennessee Comptroller’s office:
From: Blake Fontenay (Blake.Fontenay@tn.gov)
Sent: Wed 11/28/12 5:07 PM
To: Sharon Rondeau
I am responding to the inquiry you made to the Comptroller’s web site. As a matter of policy, we do not comment on ongoing investigations (even to confirm that they are ongoing). However, you may wish to contact the Attorney General’s office. I am not sure if they have a similar policy about releasing information about investigations. I am sorry I can’t be more helpful.
Comptroller, Treasurer and Secretary of State
We did not receive a response from the District Attorney General’s office or TBI agent Russ Winkler.