Slowly Grinding Wheel

With public outrage over audits building, DA Nichols is caught in the middle

The folks are out in front of the City County building with pitchforks, metaphorically speaking, responding to seemingly daily outrages revealed by audits, responses to audits, and responses to the responses to audits. People have resigned and suits are pending.

It's about time to give District Attorney Randy Nichols a Profile in Courage award. When seemingly everyone is able to see gross evidence of wrongdoing, with auditors from the county, the state comptroller, and HUD raising issues with county spending—what kind of a public official has the equanimity to just sit on his ass?

It has never been a possibility that Nichols would prosecute anyone in County Mayor Mike Ragsdale's administration. His office is funded by the mayor's budget; no one on either side would believe he has conducted a fair and impartial investigation. It's a no-win situation. That is not to say he will not name a special prosecutor to pursue the matter.

During the first few stops on Ragsdale's Road to Perdition, the county executive was quick to say he had consulted with Nichols and the DA saw no evidence of wrongdoing. At least he isn't doing that anymore. One hopes Nichols was smart enough to realize he was being played for a sap and that he compromised his office by having confabs with Ragsdale and Mike Arms about stolen e-mail and a "troubled young man" who hid his computer and ran a political consulting firm from his county-supplied desk.

When then-Sheriff Tim Hutchison's investigators came to him with the Tyler Harber case, Nichols refused to pursue the matter. You might want to give him the benefit of the doubt—he saw the issue as a political cuss fight and he had better things to do. But since then, serious questions have been raised about grants, purchasing-card bills, and unauthorized spending of county money.

I think we can assume Nichols is waiting for all the audits to be completed, the responses filed and then maybe County Commission can put it all in a box, put a bow on it, and deliver it to his office. Something to remember about the DA intervening at this point: These audits are a civil matter. The existence of a criminal investigation and a grand jury would cause a lot of people to lawyer up, shut up, and restrict the flow of information. Once the audits are complete there is every likelihood Nichols will name a special prosecutor and then be out of it.

Remember that if Ragsdale and his cohorts have violated the county charter—as in using county money to buy alcohol, for instance—it is a civil violation that might be grounds for an ouster suit, but it is not necessarily a criminal offense.

Auditors have their place, but they don't put people under oath and require them to tell the truth under penalty of law. But there is so much smoke there is evidence of a fire underneath. Call it the county government version of the Tedford Road landfill fire.

Herb Moncier and his merry band of Knox County taxpayers are currently involved in an ouster suit against commissioners Scott Moore and Paul Pinkston as a result of the Sunshine lawsuit. If Moncier and his clients have standing to oust County Commissioners, why wouldn't any 10 Knox County taxpayers and their attorneys have standing to file an ouster suit against Ragsdale? They could put people under oath, take depositions, and everyone would be under penalty of law to tell the truth.

It would be better if Nichols kept legal proceedings within the control of his office by naming a special prosecutor, impanelling a grand jury, and having the system work as it should. If things continue as they are, we may have angry citizens and their lawyers step up and start a separate process. Moncier has demonstrated what havoc that can wreak.

Pressure is building to resolve this mess. It will be much better for designated authority to get on with the job—and prevent someone from trying to do it for them. m