frank_talk (2006-35)

Are They Insane?

Determine the truth of Harber’s allegations at a grand jury

by Frank Cagle

Let’s give Team Ragsdale the benefit of the doubt. As I wrote at the time, Tyler Harber is not the most credible of witnesses to the events of the first three years of County Mayor Mike Ragsdale’s tenure.

Harber has unburdened himself in interviews with the Halls Shopper in a three-part series. He dropped out of sight after being accused of hacking emails and hiding his county computer to impede an investigation. What he says now, however, is even more disturbing.

Harber says he didn’t do anything without the approval of the Ragsdale administration. I find that hard to believe. I know I’ve accused the county mayor of taking stupid pills, but I don’t believe he is insane. But these allegations cry out for serious investigation. There need to be more sources on the official record than Harber. The proper place for the Harber allegations to be evaluated is before a grand jury, with everyone under oath. Harber alleges the Ragsdale administration went after anyone suspected of being a possible opponent in the last county mayoral election: Sheriff Tim Hutchison, County Clerk Mike Padgett and state Sen. Jamie Woodson. If these allegations are true it indicates a deep-seated sense of paranoia in the mayor’s office. That would seem to be a matter deserving of serious investigation.

Harber says he drew a county salary for three years and never did any work for the county, but only ran political campaigns on behalf of the administration. Is there any evidence to support that claim? There is evidence of his using his county computer to make television ad buys in the middle of a workday. He had a political consulting firm, and he was paid thousands of dollars by various candidates for his services while he was ostensibly working for the county. It would seem a simple matter for a grand jury to call his superiors in, put them under oath, and ask them to explain Harber’s duties and provide evidence he had a real job.

Harber says during the wheel tax referendum completed petitions with about 2,000 signatures were destroyed. He also says fake petitions with names from the phone book were turned in to damage the credibility of the petition effort. Would those be election-law violations?

The most disturbing allegations are the investigations into the personal lives of “enemies” of the Ragsdale administration. If the Ragsdale administration sought and received medical records from the county health department to use to discredit talk show critics like Lloyd Daugherty and Kelvin Moxley, it is very serious indeed. (Harber’s account says that was a fishing expedition in an effort to prove the two small-government conservatives were on TennCare, which turned out not to be true.) That would violate federal privacy laws and seriously compromise the integrity of the Knox County Health Department. It cries out for a full investigation; we cannot let an accusation that the county health department’s records are being used for political purposes stand. The director needs to be questioned by a grand jury, under oath.

Harber’s tactics were well known at the time in political circles, including his operation of the caswalker.com website—a particularly vile piece of campaign garbage. His role running political campaigns was well known. The Ragsdale administration said he would stop. He didn’t. Then they said he was doing it on his own time. He wasn’t. If Team Ragsdale didn’t know what Harber was doing, they are the most politically clueless people in town. If they did not direct or control him, as Harber alleges, they also didn’t do anything to stop him.

This saga began with the accusation that Harber hacked into the emails of then Knox County Republican Party Chairman Chad Tindell and that the emails were delivered to Ragsdale’s office. Some of those emails were between Tindell and political reporters in this town. That includes me as well as Georgiana Vines at the News Sentinel and Sandra Clark at the Halls Shopper .

I’m sure District Attorney Randy Nichols, a Democrat, is reluctant to get into the middle of this politically charged case. But he owes it to the people of Knox County to get to the bottom of it. If the election process was compromised, if the health department was used for political purposes and if journalists' emails were intercepted, the people Nichols’ represents have a right to know.

If Harber is making it all up, the Ragsdale administration deserves a fair hearing and deserves to be cleared of these allegations. There is a cloud hanging over the county mayor’s office and the health department, and the only ways to dispel it are through a grand jury or the sunshine of open court.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .