frank_talk (2006-36)

Whom Do You Believe?

Harber did go to health department, but was rebuffed, says Arms

by Frank Cagle

It’s a case of he said, they said.

County Mayor Mike Ragsdale says the only thing he ever did wrong was to allow Tyler Harber anywhere near his campaign or his administration. He wants to be very clear he has no fear of any investigation, and former aide Harber is a liar.

In a series of stories in the Halls Shopper , the infamous Harber says he didn’t do anything without the direction and knowledge of Team Ragsdale, he never did any work in his county job, and he recounts a tale in which he went to the county health department to try to determine if wheel tax opponents like radio hosts Lloyd Daugherty and Kelvin Moxley were on TennCare. He also says Team Ragsdale approved of his caswalker.com website which libeled a host of local officials.

Interviews with Ragsdale and Chief of Staff Mike Arms make it clear they consider Harber to be a rogue operative who tried to build a political consulting business by any means possible.

County Health Department Director Mark Jones, says Arms, is ready to swear an affidavit he never gave Harber any health department information. Jones does say, according to Arms, that Harber came to him and asked for the information, but he ignored him. Arms says Jones never gave Harber an envelope to take to the mayor’s office, as Harber has alleged in his interview.

Ragsdale says Harber did have duties at the Probation and Pre-Trial release office and he was often sent to court. But he acknowledges, looking back, that after going to court Harber may have gone out and done “God knows what.”

Team Ragsdale point out that Harber had no credibility when, in the wake of purloined emails showing up in the mayor’s office, he was fired. They wonder why people now believe Harber’s stories. They also question who will investigate Sheriff Tim Hutchison’s office for employees who only perform political duties. They say they met with District Attorney General Randy Nichols the day after the purloined email issue arose, laid out the facts, and Nichols said he saw no evidence of a crime.

It comes down to a question of credibility. Team Ragsdale would be surprised at the number (and identities) of people around town who believe at least some of what Harber has to say. So is there any reason to give Harber any credibility in a truth face-off with Ragsdale? There shouldn’t be. God knows I’ve never believed anything Harber has ever said. But there are things that make you wonder.

Ragsdale was told repeatedly over a three-year period that Harber’s political activities while an employee were not a good idea. The Ragsdale administration said he would stop running campaigns. He didn’t.

At the time, Team Ragsdale announced they had some stolen emails that showed up in the mayor’s office but didn’t know where they came from. Then they said they knew they came from Harber. They said as soon as they saw what they were, they turned them over without reading them. Turns out they did read them and kept copies.

They told me they don’t have a problem with Mike Chase, owner of Calhoun’s, Copper Cellar, Chesapeake’s, et al. Chase is a supporter of Sheriff Tim Hutchison and was said to be the financial supporter of Councilman Steve Hall, who ran against Ragsdale in the Republican primary. County Finance Director John Werner sent an email around at the time of the Republican primary advising county employees they could not be reimbursed if they had any official functions in a Chase restaurant. At a County Commission meeting, broadcast on public access TV, Commission Chair Scott Moore asked about the Werner memo. Ragsdale then dropped a hint that he would be willing to talk about problems at Chesapeake’s if Moore wanted to pursue the matter of Chase restaurants. That was a reference to a waiter who, on a mission trip to Ecuador, contracted hepatitis. As a precaution, all the employees at Chesapeake’s were inoculated.

Ragsdale and Arms told me if they really had it in for Chase they would have put out a press release about the hepatitis case just prior to the first UT game and Boomsday this past weekend, but they didn’t.

Harber says they pursued “enemies.” There is the Chase memo. They confirm Harber did go to the health department for information. There is no denying Harber ran a political consulting firm while a county employee and operated caswalker.com on a county computer. In the credibility sweepstakes the benefit of the doubt ought to go to Ragsdale. But as often happens in science fiction movies, the monster they created has turned around to try to devour them.

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