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AG asks Council for help
Dec 11, 2006 12:00 am
The district attorney general investigating possible improprieties at city hall is turning to the Lebanon City Council for help after the mayor's office has failed to institute a more stringent ethics policy.
"I was trying to be respectful to the mayor, and when he didn't do anything, I sought the council's help simply because this shouldn't go on," said Tommy Thompson, District Attorney General for the 15th Judicial Circuit.
In a Dec. 6 letter obtained by The Lebanon Democrat, Thompson indicates he has not received a reply from the city regarding a letter he sent to Mayor Don Fox Nov. 14 requesting more stringent wording in the city's ethics policy.
The request for the addition in the city's newly adopted ethics policy came as a result of an ongoing investigation by the Thompson and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation regarding Assistant to the Mayor Debbie Jessen's role as the agent for Chestnut Ridge. Some city councilors had raised objections concerning Jessen's role in the development, which cleared the Lebanon Planning Commission in less than 30 days.
"I left a meeting with the mayor, Haywood [Barry] and Andy [Wright, city attorney] in mid-October with the understanding that the mayor would establish an ethical policy regarding insider information," Thompson said.
An Oct. 31 memorandum from Fox to department heads, engineering staff, planning staff, executive staff and all city hall employees states that the city's ethics policy prohibits employees from "us[ing] or disclos[ing] information obtained in his official capacity … with the intent to result in financial gain for himself or any other person or entity."
Fox went on to state in the memo, "In light of recent events, I want to emphasize this section of the Ethics Policy and reiterate that it shall be the policy of the City of Lebanon that no employee shall be involved in any transaction involving financial gain resulting from information obtained through his or her employment with the City of Lebanon. It is essential that the public be able to have full faith and trust that all City of Lebanon employees are working for the betterment of the City and are not abusing their positions by using insider information to profit financially. This would lead to mistrust and cynicism by the citizens of Lebanon and will not be tolerated."
Language not strong enough
Thompson received a copy of the memorandum and said, "I think the mayor was trying to the right thing."
However, the DA wanted more specific language addressing conduct that "creates an appearance of impropriety."
In a letter dated Nov. 14 obtained by The Democrat, Thompson wrote Wright, stating, "... I was convinced Mayor Fox would address the perceived conflict.
"In an effort to avoid problems such as the one at hand, additional language is needed prohibiting conduct that 'creates the appearance of impropriety. Regardless of how innocently an insider mayoral assistant becomes a buyer's agent for major developers, such a side job only gives the appearance of impropriety."
Thompson cited the ethics policy adopted by Metro Nashville as a model policy. The Nashville policy states that employees are prohibited from acts which "might result in, or create the appearance of" using their position for gain, giving preferential treatment or "affecting adversely the confidence of the public in the integrity of the government."
City Attorney Andy Wright said such a policy may not work in the City of Lebanon due to the fact it is considerably smaller than Nashville.
"I don't want to speak for the mayor, but I think he feels a city the size of Nashville can have a cut-and-dry policy, but a city the size of Lebanon might find itself in stagnant situations trying to always avoid what some people might interpret," Wright said. "… As a conflict of interest simply because the city is limited with the number of business people and companies the city has to deal with."
Thompson said he felt he was left with no choice but to appeal to the city council.
"I felt like it needed to go farther, and I expected to hear from the mayor whether he intended to implement a policy or not," Thompson said Thursday night.
Reached Thursday while out of town on city business, Fox said he needed more time to iron out such a policy, but that he and City Attorney Andy Wright have had conversations about adding such language to the city's ethics policy.
"We sat around and waited months and months and months [for Thompson to complete his investigation], and then he gives me three weeks?" Fox said. "… That's ridiculous. … We were not given the appropriate amount of time to do what we needed to do. It's that simple."
In the Dec. 6 letter, Thompson also wrote that statements from developers interviewed reveals the possibility that another city employee sent developers to Jessen.
Thompson's Dec. 6 letter states a representative from Chestnut Ridge developer Cost Enterprises – whom Jessen represented until recently – and another developer met with City Liaison Sue Akins-Siens at a 2004 convention where she represented the City of Lebanon. Both developers later obtained Jessen as their real estate agent.
While Akins-Siens could not be reached for comment, Fox said his understanding was that Akins-Siens had given the Cost Enterprises representative the names of several local real estate agents, of whom Jessen was the only one to respond.
"They didn't know that Debbie worked for me … until they came to my conference room to meet with me about their development and saw her nameplate," Fox said.
Thompson's letter also states one developer said he "would pay the mayoral assistant $10,000 a project to be a part of their proposals going before the [Lebanon Planning] commission." The letter does not state whether this actually occurred.
The letter notes that Fox appoints all the members of the Planning Commission. It also states local real estate agents "realize [Jessen's] conflict but cannot afford to upset the Mayor, his assistant or the appointed members of the commission."
Thompson took the city to task for allowing an atmosphere "where such an employee could get referrals from fellow city appointments and gain such personal benefit."
The problem with Fox's Oct. 31 statement, Thompson wrote, "is that it allows continued activity by his staff.
"Proof of this type criminal activity is not only subjective; insiders with tremendous financial gain also guard it," Thompson wrote.
Thursday night, Thompson explained what he meant by criminal activity.
"There is a law against official misconduct, but actions have to fit that statute. It's pretty subjective and it has to be pretty flagrant activity to fit that," Thompson said, adding his office is looking to see if there has been any criminal activity that fits the Tennessee statute.
"If nothing is done, if we don't reach any resolutions, I'll just let the grand jury see what the situation is. There might be some indictments; I just don't know."
The grand jury also has the authority to make comments on the actions, or lack thereof, of elected officials without issuing any criminal indictments.
Staff Writer Jason Cox may be reached at 444-3952 ext. 45 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Managing Editor Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at 444-3952 ext. 13 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.