Déjà vu

What happens when the boss makes and breaks the rules

Frank Talk

by Frank Cagle

When a chief executive comes into office to universal acclaim and is assured on a daily basis that he is doing a terrific job, I guess a certain amount of hubris is to be expected. Next thing you know, travel expenses get out of hand. Then there are elaborate entertainments for the business community to get their support.

But people talk. Even though the staff is either on board or afraid to talk, word gets around. Then some political columnist or talk-show host, or both, starts to raise questions. A weekly newspaper suggests something is rotten.

The usual reaction is for the executive to go to the traditional media and assure them there is no truth to any of these accusationsâ"they are the product of enemies trying to undermine everything right and noble. The media usually buys it.

But the drip, drip, drip usually results in the legislative branch starting to ask questions. An internal audit finds enough to prompt a state Comptroller's audit and the scandal erupts. The mainstream media then puts its considerable resources onto the story and the executive finds that the drip, drip, drip has turned into a fire hose.

The Comptrollers' audit is then turned over to the District Attorney's office for possible prosecution and the executive usually agrees to hit the road.

We are talking, of course, about former University of Tennessee President John Shumaker. Any resemblance to the current situation in Knox County government is a damn shame.

Knox County District Attorney Randy Nichols declined to prosecute Shumaker after he was presented with a Comptroller's audit. If you are the chief executive, like Shumaker, and you make the rules, it's hard to discover instances in which you have broken them. It had never occurred to the legislature to pass, or the UT board of trustees to request, a law to prevent Andy Holt or Ed Boling or Joe Johnson from flying their girlfriends around in a UT plane, renting the Parthenon for a party, or buying a $4,000 barbecue grill.

When the Comptroller's office finishes the audit of Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale's office, it will be turned over to Nichols as well. What will he do with it?

Just about every time Ragsdale has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, he has said he ran the situation by Nichols who assured him no laws were broken. Nichols has not contradicted these statements. He also declined to take the Sheriff's department report on the Tyler Harber investigation to a grand jury.

Nichols says his office doesn't do investigations, but will examine the audit of Ragsdale once it is complete. He also makes it clear he will recuse himself and leave it to a special prosecutor to decide if any prosecution is warranted.

Policy screw-ups have been apparent, but have any crimes been committed?

From the county charter: â“It shall be unlawful for any member of the Commission, the Mayor, other elected officeholder, or any administrative assistant, executive assistant, head of any division or department of County Government, or any other person employed by the County to vote for, let out, overlook, or in any manner to superintend any work or contract with the County for the sale of any land, materials, supplies, or services to, or by, the County, or to a contractor supplying the County, where such person has a substantial financial interest, direct or indirect. Any person who willfully conceals such a substantial financial interest or willfully violates the requirements of this Section shall be guilty of malfeasance in office or position and shall be subject to ouster from officeââ”

One of the many questions for a prosecutor is whether the contract to have former Ragsdale aide Harber's company do a brochure for the education summit, at a cost of over $9,000, fits the description above.Other questions concern spending taxpayer funds for entertaining and booze.

Next Monday, County Commission will have a workshop on the audit of the mayor's office travel allowances. The Sunshine law trial starts the next day.

Jurors may think the wrong people are on trial.

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


All content © 2007 Metropulse .