Punishment Parity

Lockett has "hot pursuit" while Ragsdale is a cold trail

It seems odd that the Knox County Commission is more concerned about money lost by the Kennerly, Montgomery & Finley law firm than misspent taxpayer money.

Knox County Commission has quite rightly voted to try and remove Law Director Bill Lockett from his post because he withheld client payments from his law firm before he ran for his county job. But where was the outrage, the votes, and the effort to remove County Mayor Mike Ragsdale last year in the midst of a series of county audits?

You will recall that in May of 2008 Interim Commissioner Victoria DeFreese offered a resolution calling on Ragsdale to resign. This was after a series of audits, including the hospitality fund, and a long list of purchasing card violations and questionable grants being awarded. The only votes for the resolution were DeFreese and fellow South Knoxville Commissioner Paul Pinkston.

In Ragsdale's case, the Commission stopped with a censure vote.

Contrast that with the 18-1 vote by Commission to ask the state attorney general to oust Lockett from the law director's office. Commissioners are volunteering to join citizens in an ouster suit. The TBI has been asked to investigate. The Board of Professional Responsibility has been urged to rule quickly.

In fairness, there are a lot of new commissioners who were not on the panel last May. But some of Lockett's most vocal critics were.

But all this activity and the speed of events is heartwarming to behold. It may be that someone in county government will be punished for misdeeds. But it is a sharp contrast to the slow-as-molasses investigations we have seen for the past three years. Audits, news reports, and announced investigations by the TBI involve at least a dozen people in county government, including the mayor's office and the trustee's office and now the law director's office. Not to mention the lawsuit and fact-finding report ordered over the county mulch contract that has attracted the attention of EPA investigators.

But amid all these scandals, no one has been indicted, no one has been arrested, and no one has suffered legal punishment. We allegedly have had investigations being conducted by prosecutors from Memphis to Nashville to the Tri-Cities.

The most disturbing thing about Lockett's situation is his getting a $10,000 loan from developer Tim Graham. Graham has a variety of issues that come to county government, from tax increment financing proposals to zoning decisions. A developer being "owed" by the law director is disturbing and it also another example of Lockett's lack of judgment. Who else does he owe money?

There is a school of thought (argued by Commissioner Greg "Lumpy" Lambert) that the county should let the Board of Professional Responsibility do its investigation, take action, and it might relieve the county from the effort of ousting Lockett from office. But you should recall that DeFreese filed a complaint with the Board of Professional Responsibility when then County Law Director John Owings advised a county department head to "get a lawyer and sue" county commissioners questioning him about the mulch contract. It's been over a year, Owings is no longer in office, and the lawyer regulators have yet to be heard from. If they cleared Owings they owe it to him to make it public. If they haven't, then why the silence?

The recall effort against Lockett will take a long time and there are those who are too impatient too wait. That's fine. But in the mean time the recall effort will continue. Given the history of official action on county misdeeds these past three years, I would not put much faith in a quick resolution. If citizens don't take it upon themselves to launch recall efforts or ouster suits it doesn't appear that anything will be done.

You can't blame people for losing their faith in the "justice" system.