frank_talk (2006-43)

Showdown in K-Town

Ragsdale Commission victory may be mortal blow to insurgents

by Frank Cagle

County Mayor Mike Ragsdale scored an impressive victory at the Knox County Commission on Monday. It was clear beforehand that the resolution calling for an investigation of the activities of former Ragsdale aide Tyler Harber did not have the votes to pass. But parliamentary maneuvering and pre-game arm twisting forced the resolution to be withdrawn without any discussion: discussion of serious allegations that would have occurred in front of a room full of reporters and photographers and on community access television.

Craig Leuthold, Mike Hammond and John Griess, West Knox County Ragsdale allies, did a masterful job controlling Roberts Rules of Order. Victor Ashe would have been proud.

The rout was so complete no one with a microphone ever explained what the resolution was about. Commissioner Greg “Lumpy” Lambert, one of the sponsors, withdrew the resolution rather than go to a formal vote. If this was a face-off between Ragsdale and Sheriff Tim Hutchison over control of Commission, the sheriff didn’t show.

Ragsdale caught a break in that the Commission vote overshadowed another significant event this week. Former Knox County Republican Party Chair Chad Tindell went on the record about an incident he had told some media members off the record. Tindell talked because he was angry that the News Sentinel posted his stolen emails on its website.

Tindell says he was threatened by Ragsdale Chief of Staff Mike Arms. Tindell was involved in running for sessions court judge when speculation arose that he might swear out a warrant against Harber for stealing his email. He says he had already decided not to pursue the matter, but Arms called him and told him if he did swear out a warrant, launching an investigation of Harber’s actions, Arms would release all of Tindell’s email to the News Sentinel in the middle of the sessions judge race. There was nothing terrible in the email, but joking around among friends is often silly, and it would have been a distraction in a political campaign.

Tindell is not Tyler Harber. He is not a troubled young man. He is a respected attorney, he has served capably as party chairman, and he is a cautious man. In a recent email to me and others (one I assume neither Harber nor Arms has) Tindell said: “The contents of my emails and my character have never, ever been the issue in this mess. I was the victim of a theft of correspondence out of my personal home computer. Tyler Harber has admitted taking the emails. I do not know if that is true or if others may be involved. I have simply reported what I know to the authorities and told the truth. Yet, I continue to be asked questions about the accuracy of my statements in these emails. I am tired of being made the victim over and over again.”

This point cannot be made forcefully enough: It does not matter what was in the emails. I don’t care if they had been pumpkin pie recipes that belonged to his grandmother. The point of all this is that private correspondence was stolen and delivered to the County Mayor’s office.

Arms labels Tindell’s account a “complete fabrication.”

OK. But Arms is known for his temper. I also have a list of about a dozen people who have had their jobs, careers, businesses or reputations threatened by Team Ragsdale. You have seen the memo forbidding county functions at a Mike Chase restaurant because he had the temerity to oppose Ragsdale in the recent election.

Lambert was out-gunned at Commission, but he isn’t through. He wants to bring Tyler Harber to a Commission meeting to testify. But having beat back the resolution once, Ragsdale is in a stronger position next time around.

Another thing overlooked in all the hoopla: Dick Moran, who runs information systems for the county, said in a deposition released last week he did an investigation in June of 2004 and determined Tyler Harber was the system administrator for caswalker.com, and it was created on a county computer. That’s the infamous website that libeled half the political figures in town and assaulted the reputations of prominent women in the community. Ragsdale said earlier they shut down the site as soon as they discovered Harber was behind it. You will recall the site ran well into September, after the August primary.

Team Ragsdale will try to portray the Commission vote this week as the end of the matter. They may be successful. The story has gotten so convoluted reporters, editors and the public may be ready to let it go.

If the Knox County insurgents are to continue to try and unravel what Ragsdale knew and when he knew it, they are going to have to bring their A game. The sheriff needs to put up or shut up.

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