In August last year, the Tennessee Attorney General and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) announced they were launching a joint investigation of District Attorney Steve Bebb and the 10th Judicial District Drug Task Force and District Attorney’s Office under him.
The TBI had received complaints about Bebb and his subordinates which, in addition to an audit report released by the of the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury last July and an extensive series on allegations of wrongdoing by The Times Free Press, urged the agency to undertake an investigation of any criminal acts perpetrated by Bebb in the course of his prosecutorial and administrative duties.
The Cleveland Daily Banner reports that the TBI assigned three agents to the case. The attorney general assigned two investigators to assist TBI and an attorney to review and evaluate the evidence and advise the investigators.
Two days ago, the Attorney General Robert Cooper released a report summarizing the findings of the investigation which criticized the District Attorney but found no basis for criminal prosecution. The Times Free Press provides an overview of the claims investigated by the AG:
• Allegations related to abuse of prosecutorial authority The Times Free Press cited numerous cases where Bebb declined to prosecute law enforcement officers for conduct that would have landed a civilian in jail. Among those were a DTF officer, Lt. Bobby Queen, who held his wife in the house and fired multiple rounds through the roof with a high-powered service rifle; a DTF agent who drove drunk and wrecked her truck in the yard of a house, then fled, leaving meth-making materials and agency property behind; a police captain accused of domestic abuse and a detective who posed illegally as an attorney to try to get a jailed man to implicate himself in a murder. “The investigation uncovered no evidence that would suggest that Bebb improperly interfered in investigations of these matters or that his decisions not to prosecute were based on illegal motives.” The report noted that “illegal motives” would be things like taking bribes or committing official misconduct or extortion. The report quoted a Tennessee Supreme Court opinion stating that a district attorney general “is answerable to no superior and has virtually unbridled discretion in determining whether to prosecute and for what offense.” “Bebb’s decisions fall within the exercise of his prosecutorial authority,” the report states. • Unauthorized disclosure of TBI investigative records A related issue in the report that wasn’t covered in the newspaper series was whether Bebb released results of the TBI investigation into the Queen incident to the officer. TBI records are confidential by law. Investigators concluded Bebb gave Queen some material but couldn’t determine exactly what it was. They said there was insufficient evidence to show an unauthorized disclosure of TBI records. • Perjury in deposition testimony The Times Free Press reported an allegation that Bebb spoke untruthfully under oath in a deposition during a lawsuit by a fired DTF agent. The report states that “Bebb did not make a false statement and did not intend to deceive.” It states that Bebb got “sidetracked” and never got back on course. The report does not deal with a second allegation of speaking untruthfully under oath in a separate case. • Use of Economic Crime Funds, automobile provided by DTF and filing of expense claims The report acknowledged issues raised in the Times Free Press series, including that Bebb spent thousands from a fund meant to prosecute fraud and bad-check cases for annual office meetings and Christmas parties, that he improperly drove a car that had been seized in a drug case and that he accepted taxpayer funds for mileage reimbursement in the state-owned car. The report slaps Bebb and his office for “poor judgment, deficient record keeping, and insufficient attention to the appropriate use of public resources,” but found no criminal violations. Though parties and meetings aren’t a specifically permitted use of Economic Crime Fund money, the report stated, “a district attorney general may arguably use the funds for any office-related purpose, except for certain payments that are related to salary.” Regarding the seized car that he drove between 2009 and early 2012, Bebb told investigators that former DTF Director Mike Hall said the task force had paid off the lien on the car after it was seized. “Bebb honestly but mistakenly believed” that DTF has bought the car and he could use it for any official business. As for submitting for taxpayer-paid reimbursement for driving the car, the report states that Bebb sometimes used his personal vehicle for official business, “thus leading to confusion concerning the preparation of expense claims.” It states that a secretary prepared the claims and “Bebb signed and submitted them without careful review.” The process “lacked the documentation and formality necessary to ensure governmental accountability. These deficiencies, however, do not rise to the level of prosecutorial offense,” the report states.
Since none of these findings suggest Bebb engaged in criminal activity, no action will be taken against him for the troublesome conduct that the report documents. The Banner explains that under Tennessee Code, the attorney general is authorized to investigate and prosecute crimes committed by district attorneys general, but does not have oversight of management decisions, the exercise of prosecutorial discretion or any other actions by district attorneys general in the absence of criminal activity.
Perhaps hinting at what prevents accountability of district attorneys like Bebb, the report quotes a Tennessee Supreme Court opinion that states a district attorney general “is answerable to no superior and has virtually unbridled discretion in determining whether to prosecute and for what offense.”
Read a previous post about unbridled discretion in prosecutorial decision-making here.