March Madness?

Three ethics complaints filed against two commissioners, county mayor

The Blount County Commissioner formed the Ethics Committee in August of 2007, but no one filed any complaints for more than six months.

Then, in March, three complaints were filed with the Human Resources office at the Blount County Courthouse.

One of the complaints was filed on March 25 by Blount County Sheriff’s Office Assistant Chief Deputy Jeff French against the chair of the Ethics Committee, Commissioner Wendy Pitts Reeves. In the complaint, he alleges that during a recess at the Feb. 21 commission meeting, Reeves approached him and asked if the sheriff’s office would protect a resident named Ron McTigue if he spoke out against the sheriff regarding his cruisers.

In the complaint, French says he asked Pitts Reeves what she was talking about and she said that McTigue had been threatened by the sheriff with regards to a lawsuit.

French says he told Reeves the sheriff’s office protects everyone equally and she responded that it did not protect everyone equally. French alleges that when he asked for specific instances, Reeves said she would not talk to French because he was “probably wearing a wire.”

French says he offered to let Reeves search him but she refused and walked to the front of the room to her seat. After the meeting, French says he told Reeves he was very offended by her insinuation that he would abuse his power as a police officer.

“I further stated I wanted to know how to file an ethics complaint against Ms. Reeves. Ms. Reeves could not believe that I would be offended by her actions,” French says in the complaint.

French says Reeves excused herself to get her belongings because the commission room was closing so he followed her to her desk to get to the bottom of the allegations.

“I said, ‘Let’s forget our previous conversation and explain to me what you meant -- that all citizens are not protected equally.”

French says Reeves told her McTigue had been followed by a black sedan after a meeting and that it sat in front of his home for five hours. “I asked Ms. Reeves if anyone had gotten a tag number, and she stated, ‘No,’ and said she was only told about the incident.”

French says Reeves insulted his integrity and the integrity of the men and women of the sheriff’s office. “I am appalled that Ms. Reeves would suggest that me or anyone in the sheriff’s office would abuse or misuse the power of the sheriff’s office,” he says. “One would also have to make the assumption that Ms. Reeves was afraid of the truth if she was concerned a wire or recording device was being used.

“I and the employees of the Blount County Sheriff’s office desire nothing less than an official public apology from Mr. Reeves,” he says in the complaint. “I would also request that appropriate sanctions be taken against Ms. Reeves by the Blount County Commission or legal counsel.”

As of deadline, Reeves could not be reached for comment regarding the complaint.

Linda King of Laws Chapel Road, Maryville, filed the other two complaints.

The first complaint concerns Commissioner Mike Lewis and his role on the Blount County Budget Committee. At the July 2007 commission meeting, Commissioner Wendy Pitts Reeves questioned whether Lewis had a conflict of interest and whether he should be on the Budget committee since he was an executive at the bank where the county kept its accounts. In response, Lewis sought a state attorney general’s opinion and was advised he could serve as a director or officer at the bank but couldn’t hold stock. He then transferred ownership of his bank stock to his wife.

“The stock ownership remains within the household and affects the household income of Mr. Lewis and his spouse,” King says in the complaint. “I and most of the citizens with whom I have had contact agree that this is still a conflict of interest and would like to see further examination of this situation.”

When reached by phone, Lewis disagreed with King. “Linda’s question is, ‘Is that enough? Is it enough that you transferred the stock to your wife?’ She doesn’t think it is. I think it is. That’s for the ethics committee to deal with. They may very well decide we’ve got to ask the attorney general. If’ it’s not enough, we’ll deal with that.”

In King’s second complaint, she alleges that County Mayor Jerry Cunningham used threats to intimidate the South Blount Utility District into putting fluoride back into the water they sell to customers. “He has stated that he will not appoint or reappoint a person to the board who will not agree to vote to add fluoride to our water system,” King says in her complaint.

King says in the complaint that the board members had voted in the past to keep the water fluoride-free because of the adverse health effects of ingested fluoride. King says the mayor’s action amounts to an exchange of gifts.

“The board members of the water district are paid a salary and also receive benefits. Although they were previously against adding fluoride, the threat of the mayor caused them to fear losing their positions,” she says. “How is this different than a politician giving or accepting trips, monies, etc., for a voted expected in return? I see it as exactly the same thing. Mayor Cunningham has given them the gift of an appointment in return for the gift of a vote.”

Cunningham said that the board members wanted to add fluoride back into the water and says he is of the opinion that King filed the complaint to get attention.

“Since I became mayor, what I support, she’s against because she gets attention. She never talks unless the media or press is here. This whole complaint of hers can be summed up in two words: patent mendacity - utmost stupidity,” he said.

The mayor said that just as a president would evaluate individuals before appointing them to leadership positions, he also checks to see if individuals share his philosophical views. “I’m elected to make appointments, to fill positions of leadership with those who share my philosophical views and the philosophy of the majority of people because I was elected by the majority,” he said.

Director of Human Resources Betsy Cunningham is responsible for initiating ethics complaints investigations. The complaint against her boss put her in a unique position, and she sought advice from the county attorney.

“I report to the mayor, and he in no way wanted it to appear that I was being put in of position conflict,” Betsy Cunningham said. “He wanted to make sure it was all handled above board, and that I wasn’t putting myself in a position where it appeared I was compromised.”

Betsy Cunningham said the procedure regarding complaints has been that the ethics committee authorized her to conduct an investigation once a complaint is filed and bring her findings to them. “The commission adopted a policy as a whole, and we wrote procedure as to how to address that. The procedure says I will conduct an initial investigation and present findings to the committee. However, the policy states the committee will conduct the investigation,” she said.

The human resources director said her plan is to bring the three complaints to the committee. She planned to email each of members on Tuesday and ask what their wishes are as to the next step.

“We need to clarify when a complaint is filed what needs to happen first and foremost. My plan is to place it on the agenda for discussion at the upcoming Tuesday meeting,” she said. “This is a new journey, and we’re learning as we go. I would rather spend time discussing policy than reacting quickly and not conducting a comprehensive investigation. I’d much rather spend a little time to make sure we handle it appropriately.”

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