Judging Owings

Commission asked to appoint former county law director to be a judge

Former County Law Director John Owings would like the Knox County Commission to appoint him to a vacant Sessions Court Judgeship.

This is the guy who argued that it took a quorum of commission meeting in secret to violate the Sunshine Law. That worked out well for them when they lost the Sunshine lawsuit.

Commission rejected a settlement and a contract extension for Natural Resources Recovery to operate the county mulch facility. Then Law Director Owings lectured the commission on the need to reconsider. He told them the county was liable for $1.6 million if NRR chose to sue the county. There were things in the original contract the county did not perform.

At a recent hearing on a lawsuit, under cross examination, Owings admitted the so-called county violations of the contract occurred early in the five-year contract. Attorney David Wigler pointed out that the statute of limitations for a tort had run and the county was not liable for any such items in a lawsuit.

Former Commissioner Elaine Davis took the stand. She testified that she had voted against the contract settlement. But after Owings opined the county might be liable for $1.6 million she changed her vote. Indeed, it was her motion to reconsider the matter that revived the contract and she and William Daniels changed their votes and the contract was approved.

Davis said she would not have changed her vote but for Owings' advice.

During a hearing on the mulch contract, then-Commissioner Victoria DeFreese sharply questioned Tom Salter, the current solid waste director. She asked him pointedly if he had signed a document, under penalty of perjury, certifying the safety of the mulch facility for years when he didn't even work for the county. She asked if the documents Salter signed were thus fabricated rather than "reconstructed."

Owings interrupted to question whether DeFreese was trying to impugn the integrity of a county employee and urged Salter to get an attorney and sue DeFreese for defamation of character. Urging someone to sue your client is frowned on in legal circles. DeFreese has filed a complaint with the Board of Professional Responsibility, which polices attorney practices.

At the recent lawsuit hearing, Chancellor John Weaver tore into Salter on the stand, reading the offending document and asking the same questions as DeFreese.

The language of the document is key: "I certify under penalty of law that the pathogen reduction requirements… and the vector attraction reduction requirements… have been met. This determination has been made under my direction and supervision… I am aware that there are significant penalties for false certification, including the possibility of fine and imprisonment."

Spectators at the hearing report, from reading Weaver's body language, that he is incredulous at the incompetence of Knox County government in the administration of the contract. He threw his glasses down at one point and has directed sharp questions of county witnesses—especially Owings.

The key question from Weaver that no one has answered is this: Owings found enough merit in the lawsuit to hire an outside lawyer and pay him over $100,000 to represent the county's interest. Now he has asked the suit be dismissed. Weaver wants to know what has changed. No one can tell him.

Owings testified he hired an outside lawyer and recused himself in the lawsuit because County Engineering Director Bruce Wuethrich's wife works in Owings' office. Wuethrich is the department head under which NRR operated for five years without paying the county any revenue, as the contract required, and who now says he had no idea it happened.

The request to dismiss the lawsuit, considered a slam dunk by Owings' office, does not appear to be a done deal. Owings told commission to approve the contract; there was no need to wait until the suit was settled.

The question is not whether commission should appoint Owings to a Sessions Judgeship. The question is which commissioner is dumb enough to nominate him in the first place.