New county ethics panel considers its responsibility

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

New members of Marshall County's Ethics Committee stuck their toes in the deep waters of their new assignment last week when some of them reacted to the latest complaints.

"There are some things in here that I don't like," Commissioner Rocky Bowden said of the complaint filed by Larry Barlar against Schools Director Stan Curtis, his personnel director, Mitchell Byrd, and the school system's former transportation supervisor, Glenn Ezell.

"At one time I heard" is the phrase Bowden mentioned from Barlar's ethics complaint that alleges use of public property at the county school bus garage for private purposes and personal gain.

The phrases Bowden's dislikes might be likened to hearsay, or second hand information that is not allowed in court testimony.

Another court procedure mentioned by Bowden is commonly called "the rule" during court trials when some witnesses are excluded from the court room. It's to prevent witnesses who are called later from hearing what is said by earlier witnesses.

Barlar, a school bus driver who wasn't rehired for this school year, and Randy Lowe, a bus driver and school bus mechanic, allege that bus tires were removed and sold before their allowable time on a school bus. Both paint a picture of being set up for dismissal. Barlar alleges what would appear to be a fencing operation at the garage for stolen goods including car radios, car parts and maintenance equipment. He names names and says criminal charges were filed. Maintenance of private vehicles at the school garage is also alleged.

Some potential witnesses are suggested to the Ethics Committee, but Commissioner Larry McKnight recognized the constitutional protection against testifying against your self, the 5th Amendment right, also known as "taking the 5th."

"People could refuse to tell," McKnight said.

Faced with such limitations, Commissioner Tony White asked, "What can you do?"

Commission Chairwoman Mary Ann Neill, who's left the Ethics Committee because her term expired, replied, "You can sanction them, but anything with a Tennessee Code violation, you just send it to the District Attorney...

"That's when the real investigation can start," Neill said.

Ethics Committee members met on the evening of Aug. 31 in the County Courthouse Annex. They're to convene again at 9 a.m. today to elect officers and set schedules.

Meanwhile, the first ethics panel has completed its work with regard to the Tri-County Environmental Association's complaints against two former county officials. One case was dismissed. The other is against former Commission Chairman Sam Smith over his sale of a purchase option for land that had been seen as a prospective location for a new landfill.

County Attorney Ginger Shofner has been drafting a letter from the committee to District Attorney Chuck Crawford, Neill said. The committee voted that no ethical violation was found, but it decided to send the association's complaint to the state prosecutor.