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High Court Battle Draws Misconduct Complaints

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High Court Battle Draws Misconduct Complaints

By Phil Williams. CREATED Aug 5, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Two Tennessee Supreme Court justices brought the campaign to keep their jobs to Nashville Tuesday, just as an opposition group accused them and a third justice of breaking the law.

At the same time, a local citizen asked prosecutors to open a criminal investigation into the role of Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey in the campaign to oust them.

All of this comes just two days before Tennesseans will vote to retain or replace the three Democratic appointees -- and as both sides make their final arguments.

"We need you to go to the polls. We need you to show up in great numbers," Davidson county Clerk Brenda Wynn told a small group of supporters at the Davidson County Courthouse.

Two incumbent justices -- Connie Clark and Sharon Lee -- were there to rev up Tennesseans to vote to "retain," thwarting an effort led by Ramsey to help Republicans seize control of the state's high court. Chief Justice Gary Wade was campaigning in another part of the state.

"If the lieutenant government wants to put another half of million dollars into this campaign, he can do it. But it won't do a bit of good because in Tennessee, justice is not for sale," Lee said, drawing applause.

Meanwhile, an opposition group, the Tennessee Forum, announced that a Stewart County Republican leader and local election official had filed a complaint against the three justices, accusing them of using campaign signs that do not contain the proper disclosures about who paid for them and improperly conspiring with a political action committee that came to their defense.

Kyle Mallory told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that his complaint with the Registry of Election Finance wasn't political.

"As chairman of the Election Commission, I have an oath to uphold election laws, and I was duty bound to inform proper authorities when I see that there is possible misdoings," he said.

(View the complaint here.)

Tennessee Forum head Susan Kaestner said in a statement that "voters have have a right to know whether judges seeking eight-year terms as the final arbiter of law and justice in the state have themselves been violating the law."

Both Clark and Lee said they had not seen the complaint.

"You know the election is 48 hours away -- I think they're desperate," Lee said. "I think it's a continuation of their smear campaign against the Supreme Court."

Clarksville resident Barry Schmittou also filed a new complaint with the Davidson County DA, asking for an investigation into whether Ramsey broke state law by having his staff draw up the lines of attack and hosting a campaign-related meeting in his office.

The Little Hatch Act, as it's called, makes it illegal to use "state-owned property for campaign advertising or activities."

Ramsey's defense has been: it was all done during breaks.

"So we don't get breaks, is that what you're saying?" he asked NewsChannel 5 Investigates back in April. "So every, 24 hours a day, this is business hours, is that what you say here?"

(View the presentation prepared by Ramsey's office here. Watch the Ramsey interview here. View a campaign-related email to Ramsey's chief of staff here.)

Schmittou previously filed a similar complaint with the Tennessee Ethics Commission that was subsequently dismissed, although -- if there was any improper use of state resources -- that would actually be up to the DA's office and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to review.

NewsChannel 5 reached out to Ramsey's office for comment, but did not receive a response.

As for the campaign complaint against the justices, that won't be resolved until well after the election.

Back to NC5 Investigates: The Politics of Justice
NewsChannel 5 Investigates

Phil Williams

Phil Williams

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Phil Williams is chief investigative reporter for NewsChannel 5's nationally award-winning investigative team. His investigations have earned him journalism's highest honors.