News Explainer: The Knox County Ethics Complaint Process
The Knox County Ethics Committee normally doesn’t see volume business. The last six months have been a different case.
On April 11, sheriff candidate Lee Tramel was accused of campaigning while on duty. Two days before that, county commissioner Brad Anders was accused of benefiting from a golf tournament. And last autumn, a complaint linked county commissioners Bob Thomas and Charles Busler’s participation in a golf tournament to their subsequent votes on a county ambulance contract. All denied the allegations against them.
All are also running for office this year. Commissioner Anders told WBIR he thinks the complaint filed against him is politically motivated. Deputy Tramel said the same thing. The man who filed the complaint against Busler is a former rival for his county commission seat.
The complaint process is open to nearly anyone, and provocative claims get re-circulated in the press before they are resolved. With an election year now well underway, WUOT wanted to examine the process of filing and pursuing an ethics complaint against a public official.
In Knox County, a sworn complaint form (available online) must be filled out and notarized, and evidence may be listed or attached to that form. The law or rule being allegedly violated must also be referenced, along with any documentation that could support the allegations.
Anyone can file a claim, except “any individual acting in their official capacity as a political party chairman, a state or county executive director of a political party, or as an employee or agent of a political party.” Anonymous complaints are not accepted.
Once the complaint is filed, the Knox County Ethics Committee sends the complainant a receipt. Knox County Law Director Bud Armstrong says his office may contact them to ask if there’s more evidence before assigning an investigator. If a claim happens to hit the paper, radio, or TV news – as claims are public record – the office may do some additional evaluation before handing it to the ethics committee.
The committee then works to determine the complaint’s credibility. If the panel agrees the complaint has merit, it notifies the person being accused and sets up a public hearing. The ethics panel can then take one of five actions that range from various forms of sanction, to dismissing the complaint entirely.
Each of these steps can be followed in the case of commissioners Bob Thomas and Charles Busler. Richard Bennett filed the complaint in September 2017. Law Director Armstrong’s investigation continued through December. In early March 2018, the nine-member ethics committee decided to follow up on Bennett’s complaint, and set a public hearing. At that hearing, April 6, committee members dismissed the complaint, saying there wasn’t enough evidence to prove an ethics violation had taken place.
The complaint against Brad Anders was filed by Bruce Williams. It alleges Anders, participating in a golf tournament, accepted gifts more valuable than county policy permits. Law Director Bud Armstrong’s office is currently following up on Williams’ complaint.
Sheriff candidate Lee Tramel says there’s no merit to the accusation that his campaigning violates federal and state law. Retired police investigator and current House District 19 candidate Donald Wiser submitted the complaint. In 2014, he criticized Tramel’s boss, Sheriff J.J. Jones, in a letter to county mayor Tim Burchett. His complaint is also being evaluated.
How can officials sort out potential ethical violations from political grudges? It’s hard to do, and may well be impossible to conclusively determine, said Knox County Assistant Law Director David Buuck. He works with and advises the ethics committee.
“The ethics code and procedure can be used for political purposes,” Buuck told WUOT. “Especially in this time of [an election] year, the first thing you think is, it’s political. But there’s nothing in the rules of procedure to make that determination.”
Four ethics complaints have been filed during Buuck’s six years with the county law department. Three of them have been since last September, likely because complaints about candidates get a lot of attention, he said.
Filing a false claim can carry civil and criminal penalties, although Law Director Armstrong says it’s rare to see that happen.