Sunday, March 20, 2011

No end in sight for Trustee probe

It seems on the surface, anyway, that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation moved fast when agents looked into former Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner.

And the resolution was even quicker.

Less than a year after the TBI started its September 2010 probe, the long-time judge resigned from his post and pleaded guilty to official misconduct, a felony.

That was a few weeks ago.

So what the heck is going on with that investigation into the Trustee's Office? It's been kicking around for years, and a number of folks, including several county commissioners, have called me, saying they believe it's political.

I'm not sure about that, but it certainly seems to be dragging.

And, of course, state investigators aren’t saying much.

“It’s still an ongoing active investigation, so there’s nothing we can release,” Jerri Powell, special agent in charge of the TBI’s Criminal Intelligence Unit, told me Friday. “I’d say it will be a little bit (longer).”

And that was the extent to that conversation.

However, John Duncan III, the county’s trustee since September (who has nothing to do with the past allegations), provided some insight to me last week.

Although he acknowledged that “there’s no indication on when things will get wrapped up,” he did say that as recently as two weeks ago, “they were asking for old records.”

He didn’t elaborate on what. Either that or I forgot to ask. (Hey, it’s freakin’ blog, I can’t provide everything here. I got to save the good stuff for the paper.)

“My impression is that they just had one investigator and they had to pull her off the case and put her on other cases,” Duncan said. “But the last time they came in there were three of them.”

Well then, maybe something will happen soon.

Anyhoo, Duncan said they were looking at (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) “extra comp time payments and ghost employees."

“They requested documents for people who were supposedly out serving summons,” he said. “They were digging back eight to 10 years. I’m not sure how many (former employees) were involved.”

Well, that makes sense.

This whole mess dates to the Mike Lowe era.

Back in February 2009, Duncan’s immediate predecessor, Fred Sisk, asked the TBI to examine payroll practices in the trustee’s office after a $68,000-a-year employee received $195,000 in total 2008 compensation. (That would be operations manager Johnny Haun, whom Sisk fired by the way.)

The state also is looking into payroll discrepancies involving extra payments of overtime, vacation and sick leave. (Some of the would be under the Sisk-administration.)

Sisk also fired Sam Harb, the office’s delinquent-tax supervisor and online payment manager, in April 2010.

Harb, too was connected to the TBI probe. In fact, when the whole thing began, the agency seized three computers of employees, including his.

For his part, Duncan says he’s cleaned house (essentially two folks) of anyone who might have any connections to the investigation. (He actually got rid of a third person for unrelated reasons when he took office.)

“To the best of my knowledge there’s no one in my office being looked at,” he said.

When asked what he’s heard about the investigation (the state isn’t telling him a whole lot either, according to Duncan), he said: "You always hear different things that they’re supposedly looking into. You also hear about people doing political work on county time.”

Then, after saying that, he quickly stressed that he told his workers that he won’t accept any future campaign contributions and that they better not be doing work on county time.

He did say that a few of them asked whether they could support candidates in the city’s upcoming mayoral race.

He said that’s fine. As long as it’s after 5 p.m.

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