The House Judicial Oversight Committee, tasked with the responsibility of investigating allegations against 10th Judicial District Attorney General Steven R. Bebb, recommended Wednesday that a charging committee be formed.
In a short, one-paragraph note to House Speaker Beth Harwell, state Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport who chairs the Oversight Committee, wrote, “Having completed the review of the TBI files, other sources of information and interviewing witnesses, we have voted in the aggregate and determined that we do have cause to move forward. We recommend the appointment of the charging committee.”
In a Wednesday evening telephone interview, Shipley said the charging committee cannot be appointed until after the next session opens in January 2014.
“The charging committee will be responsible for actually presenting the charging resolution,” he said. “This doesn’t imply anything except what the letter said. We recommend that you move forward with the investigation as we have determined there is sufficient justification to do so. Nothing has been implied or suggested otherwise.”
The Senate is pursuing the same route as the House, though it has not yet acted.
“The chairman is out of the country and he and I are going to talk on Friday, and then the Senate will be taking it up in the next couple of weeks,” Shipley said.
There is no set length of time required for the charging committee to draft a charging resolution.
“... Substantial work has been done in the oversight committee’s investigation,” Shipley said. “We spent the last four months combing through open source information, talking to witnesses, taking testimony and reviewing TBI files. Most of that is done. Now, the information we have will simply be presented to that committee.”
Shipley said it is up to the House speaker and lieutenant governor to appoint joint charging committee members and its chairman though they could reappoint some of the same members who served on the oversight committees.
“If that’s so, they could simply pick one of the 15 items we went forward with. They could pick one or two, or all 15. Those items will be put in a charging resolution that would move forward to a vote,” he said.
Bebb, who said Wednesday that he is not ready to speak on the investigation, would be notified 10 days before a vote.
“It’s our intention prior to doing that, afford him the opportunity of a due process hearing before a joint committee. The charging committee is a joint committee,” Shipley said. “He will have the opportunity to present witnesses and contrary evidence in front of the charging committee prior to us going to a vote.”
The joint committee will next take the information to a joint convention of the House and Senate to hear evidence against Bebb. The two bodies will then retire to their respective chambers and votes taken. The charging resolution must pass the House and Senate by two-thirds in order to remove the district attorney.
Shipley said the action of this committee was not to establish guilt.
“That was not part of our charge,” he said. “Our charge was to review the issues before us that are part of TBI files and open records to determine if there is sufficient cause to move forward. The vote today was confirmation that the committee believed there was sufficient evidence to justify moving forward with a charging committee.”
When asked about the differences between the investigation conducted by State Attorney General Robert Cooper Jr. and the House Judicial Oversight Committee, Shipley said the two investigations operated under different standards.
“We looked at several things they didn’t, which I can’t get into because it is all part of an active investigation,” Shipley said. “The attorney general’s comment was that he found nothing that was ‘prosecutable.’”
He said there could be a variety of reasons such as insufficient evidence, prosecutorial discretion based on the state AG’s interpretation of evidence or there could have been something prosecutable that was now beyond the statute of limitations.
“We concur with the attorney general that we found nothing that was prosecutable as a felony,” Shipley said. “We concur with his findings. However, our standards are different. We can look at a variety of behavior, conduct and we also have the ability to disagree with the attorney general’s assessment, if we choose to do so.”
House members voted 75-10 in April to approve House Resolution 60 that directed the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to, “... as soon as practicable, make available for inspection and review all files, records, backup material, notes, interview transcripts, other exhibits and materials used in and relating to the investigation by the Bureau and Attorney General of District Attorney General R. Steven Bebb.”
Harwell then appointed six members from the combined membership of the Civil Justice Committee and the Criminal Justice Committee to conduct what amounts to a grand jury investigation.
Shipley said he would not reveal if the Oversight Committee’s vote was unanimous or split, only that it was the action of a committee designed around ethics to prevent people from accusing them of a witch-hunt, anything political or inappropriate.
“The committee consisted of three Republicans, three Democrats, three African-Americans and three Caucasian-Americans. One was a former district attorney and one is a former judge,” he said. “That’s about as fair as we could possibly do it.”
Judicial Oversight Committee members included: Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, former judge; William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, former prosecuting attorney; committee chair Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, retired Air Force intelligence officer; Karen Camper, D-Memphis, retired Army chief warrant officer; John DeBerry, D-Memphis, marketing, advertising and public relations executive; and G. A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, real estate investor.
“At this particular moment, until the charging resolution is written, we are still essentially a grand jury-type committee. We have essentially returned a true-bill today to the Speaker,” he said.
Shipley said the reason he was purposely ambiguous about the 15 items that convinced the committee to recommend moving forward was to protect the innocent until proven otherwise.
“It is my intent to protect him (Bebb) absolutely until such time as the next committee decides to move forward,” Shipley said. “Our overwhelming responsibility here was not to establish guilt. Our overwhelming responsibility was to reestablish trust in the people in the State of Tennessee and specifically, the 10th Judicial District.”
The legislators’ demands to see the files follows a cooperative investigation launched Aug. 27, 2012, by the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office and the TBI with assistance from the Comptroller of the Treasury. That investigation was in response to audit findings released July 10, 2012, by the Comptroller and other complaints received by TBI.
On March 27, the attorney general issued a report concluding there was not sufficient evidence to indicate Bebb engaged in criminal conduct and criminal prosecution was not appropriate.
However, the Constitution of Tennessee confers the exclusive authority on the General Assembly to remove judges and state attorneys for cause.
According to H.R. 60, the General Assembly cannot make an educated and informed decision with respect to pursuing action against Bebb without inspecting investigative files and other documents compiled and used by TBI during the course of its investigation.
Though none of the allegations reviewed by the attorney general rose to the level of criminal charges, his final report stated Bebb and his office engaged in practices and recordkeeping that evidenced poor judgment, deficient recordkeeping and insufficient attention to the appropriate use of public resources.