Politics R Us?
Shouldn’t that be the ‘employees on probation’ department?
by Frank Cagle
A one-car accident at 3 a.m. is a news brief. A county employee totaling a county car and being charged with DUI is a story. If the county employee is Jay Witt, it’s a series.
Witt has worked for the Knoxville Police Department and he has worked for the Knox County Sheriff’s Department and he now works for the Probation and Pretrial Release Office that reports to County Mayor Mike Ragsdale. In his law enforcement career, Witt has been better known for his political exploits than his detective work.
When Witt wrecked his county car Thanksgiving morning, putting him in the hospital and charged with DUI, it was an all too human story about a man whose personal life is a mess, suffering from depression and no doubt “self-medicating.” There is little to be gained from handing Witt a harsh punishment. He needs treatment, counseling and he needs to pay for a county Crown Vic. It would be unfortunate if public pressure forced Ragsdale and District Attorney Randy Nichols to seek draconian punishment.
But the Probation and Pretrial Release Office has also had more exposure this last year than in several previous years put together. Its most famous employee prior to Witt was Tyler Harber, who ran political campaigns and had a lot of computer expertise. He resigned after an investigation involving the hacking of e-mail after his computer was found hidden on top of a heating duct. The Probation department may be due for a name change. How about Politics and Employees on Probation Department?
Throughout Witt’s career of helping run political campaigns, he has been suspected of having a passkey that allowed him access to assorted county offices, though no one was ever able to prove it or find the key. Turns out he didn’t have a passkey. According to the sheriff’s office, the inventory of his car after the accident revealed that he had 82 keys alleged to be for various offices at the City County building. I doubt if the head of the Public Building Authority has 82 keys to offices in the City County building.
The City County building, you remember, is that bastion of security that has metal detectors on the front door manned by guards. It’s the building where the public can’t park in the parking deck because of security concerns. The Public Building Authority has the place wrapped up tight. To be fair to the PBA, Witt has most likely had those keys longer than any of those guys have been in town.
Does Todd Cook, the ostensible head of the Probation and Pretrial Release Office, know what his employees are doing all day? In fairness, it should be noted that Witt was a political operative for Sheriff Tim Hutchison until they had a falling out and he left the department. And most of the souvenirs Witt had stashed in his car probably came from his days working court security for the sheriff’s department—a blue light, identity cards, deputy identification. Someone might ask if the 300 rounds of ammunition were county-issued.
When Cook and Witt went to the legislature last session to try and get a law passed so they could carry badges and guns, was it so Witt would be legal carrying the county-owned, .40-caliber Glock semi found in Witt’s car after the accident? What was he doing with a gun issued to Cook when Cook worked for the sheriff? Does the sheriff’s office keep up with who has .40-caliber handguns and what they are doing with them?
Is Jay Witt the only employee on the county payroll whose job includes doing political chores for officeholders? (That’s a rhetorical question.) It should be noted that the probation office has been in the news over political operatives getting into trouble, but you should not presume that it is the only one. Virtually every county department has political specialists and most of them have “shock troops” to man the polls on election day.
There is nothing wrong with county employees being politically active. But they need to do it voluntarily, and they need to do it on their own time. They need to do the job they are hired to do and do it during the hours they are supposed to work.
We are coming up on the 2006 election season, and virtually every office in the courthouse is on the ballot. Officeholders (and the media) need to pay close attention this year to make sure that county employees are not being used to run political campaigns. Perhaps each officeholder could put out a memo to employees imploring them not to engage in political activity during office hours and assuring them their participation in a political campaign is entirely voluntary.
Yes, it would be amusing. But perhaps, since Ragsdale does not have an opponent for re-election, we can ask him to be hall monitor.
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .