What is now becoming the most quoted stanza of Tennessee’s legal heart — by legislators, newsmen, political rivals and an untold number of casual observers — is Article VI, Section 6, which “... confers upon the General Assembly the exclusive authority to remove judges and attorneys for the state for cause.”
District attorneys general fall within this grouping.
Certainly “for cause” in the quoted state statute is the catchphrase because, as in all matters of law and its interpretation, it depends on personal views and legal precedents. Also at play are political influence and partisan debate.
The scenario isn’t pretty, but it’s fairly simple.
Effective Aug. 27, 2012, the Tennessee Attorney General’s office, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury partnered in an investigation of Bebb’s office in response to multiple allegations of wrongdoing. The four-month probe was anchored by three TBI agents and two attorney general investigators. It involved 61 witnesses including auditors with the Comptroller’s Office, law enforcement officers within the 10th Judicial District, victims in the incidents related to the allegations, and others with knowledge of Bebb’s office operations and prosecutorial procedures.
Two weeks ago, Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper released an 11-page report summarizing the results of the completed investigation, and whose files were sealed. In the disclosure, Cooper reported the joint investigation uncovered no evidence of legal wrongdoing by Bebb; at least, none that rose to the level of criminal charges.
However, the state AG’s report did admonish Bebb and his office for engaging in practices and recordkeeping that evidenced poor judgment, deficient recordkeeping and insufficient attention to the appropriate use of public resources — all of which give rise to questions of ethical misconduct, abuse of power, lack of administrative oversight and mismanagement.
Now enter the Tennessee Legislature, and specifically members of the Criminal Justice Committees for both the Senate and House of Representatives. In both instances, resolutions (Senate Resolution 40 and House Resolution 60) directing TBI to hand over the investigation files are headed for legislative debate this week.
The reasoning by House and Senate resolution sponsors is legitimate. The criminal investigation against Bebb — which excludes certain factions and personnel within the 10th Judicial District — apparently will not lead to legal prosecution. But the question of ethics violations remains, and that’s where state legislators are honoring their Constitutional mandate.
In order to make a well-informed decision on any potential move to impeach, or to remove, Bebb from his elected office based on the lesser allegations of ethical misconduct, state legislators say they need to see the investigation files.
The request to TBI is legitimate regardless of one’s political views.
But here’s the caveat. Bebb is a long-standing Democrat, as is Attorney General Cooper — a commonality that hasn’t escaped the suspicions of some. Likewise, both the 107th and 108th legislative sessions of the Tennessee General Assembly have been guided heavily by an overwhelming Republican influence.
Obviously, the potential — and the temptation among legislators — for determining Bebb’s fate through political partisanship is there.
We point no fingers and we make no accusations, direct nor indirect. In asking TBI for the tell-all files, state legislators are taking a responsible, and accountable, direction.
But we do remind — and we request — those in the Nashville seats of power to debate the facts and to make decisions this week, and perhaps beyond, based on evidence and interpretation of the law, and not on political prejudice.
As we have previously acknowledged, Bebb indeed appears to be guilty of poor judgment and lack of administrative oversight in the day-to-day operations of the 10th Judicial District Attorney General’s office.
As such, is this justification for impeachment or removal from office?
The decision lies with state legislators and their legal teams. We ask only that partisan politics be kept out of the fray.