Ketron, Matthews staffer await e-mail ruling

Friday, November 12, 2010

State Sen. Bill Ketron says he's waiting to hear what the Maury County Grand Jury has done before deciding whether to continue a civil complaint against his political rival and her campaign manager over an e-mail spoofing.

Chris Atkins, former state Senate candidate Debbie Matthews' campaign manager opened a free e-mail account - - which solicited funds for Matthews once the e-mail was opened. Ketron sued, got an injunction to stop that spoofing and a ruling allowing him to take Matthews to trial for using his name.

Asked about Ketron's civil complaint and the prospect of a criminal case, Bruce Peden, the Columbia-based attorney representing Matthews and Atkins, emphasized that Maury County Judge Robert L. Holloway Jr. exonerated Matthews, finding that she had no direct role in sending the e-mail.

Holloway ruled on Oct. 26 that Matthews didn't know Atkins spoofed Ketron until the incumbent senator threatened his suit during a political debate in Columbia. A couple of weeks later, when early voting started, Ketron obtained a court order to stop use of the e-mail address.

The day after Ketron was re-elected, Maury County's Grand Jury deliberated on two issues that arose from the spoofing, according to Ketron, who discussed the matter in a telephone interview. Indictments were apparently sought for identity theft and misrepresentation on campaign literature.

"The grand jury seemed to focus more on the felony which is identity theft," Ketron said, relaying information from someone who told him about the proceedings. "They took 45 minutes..."

Peden noted that Holloway dismissed the allegation of misrepresentation on campaign literature because, as the judge wrote, "No reasonable person opening the e-mail and viewing the contents could have been misled into believing Bill Ketron was endorsing Debbie Matthews."

"I made that argument," Peden said, "and apparently the judge accepted it...

"I don't believe any crime was committed," Peden said.

As for Ketron and the civil and criminal cases, the senator said, "I've never done this before."

While describing himself as inexperienced with these aspects of the legal process, Ketron related what he'd learned: That prosecutors "took everything to the grand jury and then they bring it back in two weeks when they return indictments...

"They took it under advisement, as well as all others (other cases) presented to the grand jury," Ketron said.

"So, I will wait to see what happens on the criminal side," the senator said while discussing what might happen with the civil case he brought against Matthews.

Procedural matters and court rules that affect this situation include the existence of what's frequently called a "no true bill of indictment," a document that says the grand jury found no probable cause to issue an indictment and send a case toward a criminal trial.

Still, Ketron relayed officials' view if a true bill of indictment is issued.

"They don't think Mr. Atkins is a flight risk," Ketron said. "They'll probably give him a call and ask him to come to the station and then he could make bond."

Does Ketron believe there will be an indictment? "In talking with them, they felt comfortable with it.

Ketron's discussion and an interview with Peden shows that Maury County has grand jury reports issued two weeks after the panel deliberates.

Peden pointed out that grand jury deliberations are confidential and he reviewed part of Holloway's ruling.

"While I highly respect Judge Holloway and his ability, I respectfully disagree with his conclusion that a portion of the Tennessee Trade Practices Act was violated by use of the e-mail," Peden said. "The U.S. Supreme Court and virtually every federal court have made a big distinction between political speech and commerce."

Other states have laws on spoofing, Peden and Holloway said. Tennessee does not have such a law.

Peden likened the spoofing - use of Ketron's name in the e-mail address - to someone distribution "of fliers that said 'A message from Bill Ketron,' and then makes a point about him but the conclusion shows it's from Matthews."

Peden claims impartiality as he argues these points, declaring that he is "a die hard Republican" who's served as the county party chairman at a Maury County Republican meting.

Atkins seems to be a nice young man who made a bad mistake," Peden said. "It would be a bad mistake to cause him more problems than he has already inflicted on himself, on the campaign and the race.

"I'd be highly surprised if there was some criminal charge to come from this, but the grand jury hears one side," he said. "This does not violate the Tennessee statute on identity theft."