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County residents questioned by TBI in Martin probe
Apr 28, 2005 12:00 am
APRIL 27, 2005
Landowners in Lebanon and Norene have been questioned in recent days by investigators probing "improper" changes in property assessments by former Property Assessor Jimmy Carter Martin.
Officials have largely remained mum on the inquiry since it was recently revealed the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is probing changes in the assessed values of property which were termed "improper" by state auditors.
Martin, who was defeated for re-election to the office last August by Jimmy Locke, denied any wrongdoing in his official response to the state audit and has declined comment on the investigation.
But homeowners in Lebanon and Norene – speaking on the condition of confidentiality – confirmed Tuesday they have recently been interviewed by TBI agents about changes made to the assessed value of their land.
District Attorney General Tommy Thompson, when contacted about the probe Tuesday, said it remains open-ended with no set time frame for its conclusion.
"There's no time frame for it at all. The TBI is just looking into it," Thompson said.
The DA said the probe was launched as a result of complaints from residents to his office, though he noted media reports of the audit had already piqued his interest.
"Of course I'm familiar with all the reporting that's been done on it but the investigation was actually prompted by citizen complaints," Thompson said.
Problems with property assessments first came to light in February in the state's annual audit of county finances, which cited 38 decreases in assessed land values as "improper." The audit report pointed out that among the 38 improper assessment decreases were three parcels owned by Martin himself which dropped in value by a total of $55,000 just one week before he left office, records show.
In addition, Martin's sister and a longtime political ally who once served as a Lebanon city councilor also enjoyed substantial assessment decreases just before the outgoing assessor left office, records indicate.
At the same time Martin's political supporters were enjoying property assessment decreases, a number of landowners perceived as supporting Locke saw the assessed value of their land increase, the same records show.
A comparison of property assessments conducted by The Lebanon Democrat in March, one month after the audit was released, showed three members of a prominent West Wilson County family perceived to oppose Martin saw the assessed value of five parcels of land increase by nearly $80,000 a week after Martin was defeated by Locke.
Records on file in the Property Assessor's office show District 8 County Commissioner W.J. 'Mac' McCluskey and his father-in-law Herschel Ligon and Ligon's son, Dan Ligon, saw their property assessments increased by a total of $79,800, all taking place Aug. 16 – 11 days after Martin was defeated.
McCluskey, one of the longest-serving county commissioners, remarked "I'm sure" when asked in March if he felt politics played a role in the assessment changes.
McCluskey said the assessments were increased after a Locke campaign sign appeared on the family's property, though he said he personally took no stance in the race.
Another prominent family possibly perceived as anti-Martin politically saw the assessments of four properties increased upward on Aug. 9, records show.
Well-known Lebanon construction company owner Eddie Conrad saw the assessed value of four sites he owns jump by a total of $41,700 shortly after election day, property records show.
Meanwhile, Martin ally and former Lebanon City Councilor Johnny Knowles – a staunch supporter of the lifelong politician – saw his property values decrease by $34,000 three days after election day. At the same time, two of Knowles' relatives saw their assessments decrease by $42,000 and $7,000 respectively.
Knowles, long active in local politics and a one-time Lebanon mayoral candidate, denied any wrondoing in the assessment changes, saying he "never had a conversation with Jimmy Martin about it, never asked him to lower my property value assessment or anything else."
Though Martin himself denied any wrongdoing in his written response to the audit, the document stated property values were lowered "as a result of improper adjustments to the appraisal records" and said sites inspected showed no "physical changes" to justify the decreases in assessed value.
Attempts to contact attorney Frank Lannom – who has represented Martin in a pair of highly publicized drunken driving cases over the past few years – for comment about the investigation were unsuccessful Tuesday.
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.