BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
The Greene County Ethics Committee responded with strong emotion on Wednesday as members reviewed documentation related to a potential conflict of interest case.
"The complaint is that there is a potential violation of the Greene County Code of Ethics, and possibly state law, by Greene County Commissioner Tim White," Chairman Hilton Seay said.
White is part-owner of A&W Excavating & Hauling, LLC, which performed $22,190 of work in March for the Greene County School System, after a formal bid process, by installing the sewer system at the new Chuckey-Doak High School Fieldhouse.
Seay, who ran the meeting with strict order, noted that White had to recuse himself from the vote and that he would only be called on to speak after all other committee members had their say.
Committee members include Seay, Commissioner Wade McAmis, who serves as secretary, Commissioners Robert Bird, David Crum, Rennie Hopson, Jan Kiker, Phil King, and White, and County Clerk David Thompson.
White requested to speak several times at the beginning of the meeting, but permission was denied until just before vote took place concerning what action the committee should take.
Instead, Seay began by introducing attorney Benjamin Lauderback, of Knoxville, whom County Mayor Alan Broyles has appointed to consider the case.
Kiker objected to opening discussion, saying that the committee had a memo from Broyles on the matter but no formal, signed complaint from whoever had alerted Broyles to the situation.
That person or persons was not revealed on Wednesday, and Lauderback said that the letter Broyles sent out to Seay as committee chair, calling the committee meeting, would qualify as the formal complaint.
Kiker spoke out passionately in White's defense several times during the meeting, at times prompting Seay to call her out for speaking out of turn and, at one point, suggesting that he would have her removed from the room if it continued.
Lauderback began his address by explaining that he is working as the county attorney on only this issue since County Attorney Roger Woolsey recused himself because he is a neighbor of White's.
"I am not here to advocate one way or the other, for any position. I've simply been asked to look into this, to look at documents, review the documents, and present it to you as a committee," Lauderback said.
He also assured the committee that he has very little to no ties to Greene County and had no prior relationship with White or Broyles.
"This is fairly new ground. You're not going to find literature on ethics committees and how they handle certain issues," he added. "It's not something that's done frequently."
He asked to be allowed to first present the documents related to the case and allow the committee to decide from there. He clarified that there was no allegation of criminal activity at this point.
Lauderback walked the committee through the documents he had gathered, including:
* the county Code of Ethics;
* the document marking the Feb. 16 bid opening on the project in which A&W Farms was the low-bidder by nearly $10,000.
Lauderback noted that the bid was marked as from a partnership and the name on the bid was "Charles T. White," indicating White's "direct involvement" with the bid;
* the County Board of Education minutes from their Feb. 23 meeting, in which it is noted their approval of the construction of the fieldhouse in a unanimous roll call vote.
Lauderback noted that the minutes were, in his opinion, "not well taken."
* the County Commission minutes from the commission's Feb. 21 meeting, at which White was present and voted in favor of allowing the school system to transfer $62,000 from the system's savings to its Capital Projects fund for the fieldhouse site and sewer work.
Lauderback emphasized that this was "specifically" for the site and sewer work and was approved five days after the bids were opened and two days before the school board awarded the bid to White;
* the County Commission minutes from the March 19 meeting, at which White was present and voted in favor of allowing the school system to transfer $523,652 from savings to their Capital Projects fund for the construction of the fieldhouse.
Lauderback again referred to this as "specific" to White's project.
* state laws related to conflict of interest.
In addressing the state law, Lauderback confirmed that both state statutes refer to ouster suits, but told the committee that that was not under discussion for Wednesday's meeting.
"We're here only to talk about whether or not a conflict of interest occurred," he said.
He then read through portions of two statutes:
* T.C.A. 12-4-101, the general conflict of interest statute that prohibits "anyone who votes for, lets out, or in any manner supervises any work or contract from having a direct financial interest in that contract, purchase or work, and it requires disclosure of indirect financial interests by public acknowledgment";
* T.C.A. 5-14-114, for counties under the County Purchasing Law of 1957, which prohibits "the purchasing agent, members of the purchasing commission, and all county officials from having any financial or other personal beneficial interest in any contract or purchase of goods or services for any department or agency of the county."
Lauderback did note that the Tennessee Supreme Court has found unconstitutional subsection C of 5-14-114, which names a violation of the law a Class D felony.
Seay then opened the matter for discussion by committee members.
Commissioner Hopson began the discussion by saying that he is "appalled" that the matter had been heavily discussed prior to Wednesday's meeting, which he said was its first official consideration.
He also objected to accusations made during the last meeting of the County Commission that this matter was in any way related to White's vote to approve the recent property tax increase that was largely for the benefit of the school system.
Commissioner Kiker disagreed, noting that the matter was not raised until after the property tax vote, in which White was considered the "swing vote" that allowed the tax increase to pass.
This, she said, was despite the fact that it was widely known A&W Farms was performing the work because of a front-page article in The Greeneville Sun after workers accidently hit a gas line at the school.
[Editor's Note: an article about the gas line accident was published in the Sun on April 19, but it appeared on Page A-3. The article did not name either White or A&W Farms.]
She also questioned Mayor Broyles' letter, which said he had been informed of the matter on Aug. 20.
Kiker said Broyles had called Director of Schools Dr. Vicki Kirk into his office to discuss the matter on Aug. 16, and had White in his office the next day.
Broyles later explained that he did hear of the matter for the first time at the Aug. 13 County Commission meeting when he was approached about the matter during a brief recess.
He dismissed the complaint at the time because he said he had no knowledge of the work, but later investigated in his office and found copies of the system's payments to A&W Farms.
Broyles said he then contacted the County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS) and the CTAS lawyer sent his opinion that "a county commissioner cannot do work for the county. It is an illegal contract."
CTAS recommended Broyles speak to Woolsey, the county attorney, and the matter went from there, the mayor said.
Both Mayor Broyles and Commissioner Bird said they had not seen the news article about the broken gas line.
Bird said, however, that the paper trail presented by Lauderback "tells the whole story."
Crum expressed his opinion that the Ethics Committee should have been meeting regularly in order to be more open to such complaints from the community and to address them in a timely manner.
He noted that copies of the Code of Ethics should be posted at the Greene County Courthouse as well.
In considering the specifics of the White matter, Crum looked to the code's phrasing, first about whether White had been "reasonable" in his understanding that he was appropriately bidding and voting, and then about whether the matter had been raised in a "timely manner."
"That's a real problem I've got. Was the allegation made in a reasonable and timely manner," he said.
Crum noted that, in voting, commissioners believing a fellow commissioner voted without properly indicating personal interest must object to the matter before any other business is conducted at that meeting in order for there to be any change to the vote.
Lauderback, however, said the "timely manner" phrasing did not apply beyond White's votes in this situation.
He began to explain that, because of the "timely manner" clause, any vote White has made will stand, whatever the committee or commission's final decision on the conflict of interest issue.
However, Lauderback used a hypothetical to explain.
"If, hypothetically speaking, Mr. White's no longer a commissioner three months from now ...," Lauderback began to explain.
"Let's use some other hypothetical," White interrupted.
"I think that's one that applies here," Lauderback replied.