Hamilton County district attorney's brother-in-law receives pay from county

·6 min read

Jul. 22—Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston used county funds to supplement state pay for his wife and brother-in-law, state records show.

In May, Pinkston was asked by a county commissioner whether any of his relatives were being paid using county money.

"Of the county employees that the county's responsible to have on our payroll, so to speak, are any of those employees a relative of you?" Commissioner Tim Boyd asked during a routine budget hearing.

"No. They're not," Pinkston answered.

But records from the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference — the state organization that provides administrative services for district attorneys' offices — show that Pinkston's brother-in-law receives about 30% of his salary from the county, though he is on the state's payroll.

A spokesperson for the DA's office declined to comment.

Personnel records obtained by the Times Free Press show that of Kerry Clewell's $48,992 salary, $14,000 is paid to the state by a Hamilton County supplement, at Pinkston's discretion.

The records were obtained under the Tennessee Public Records Act after Pinkston's statement in the budget hearing. They show Kerry Clewell began receiving that supplement at the time he was hired in August 2020.

The state records list Clewell as a secretary, although Pinkston lists him as an investigator. The Times Free Press asked Pinkston for an explanation of the discrepancy in May and has yet to receive one.

"At what point when a DA, who should be held to the highest standard of compliance of the laws of the country and the community, and who has the authority to ruin other people's lives for accountability — at what point is the state going to hold him accountable?" Boyd asked while speaking with the Times Free Press on Wednesday, after learning of the supplement.

Since the budget hearing and subsequent reporting by the Times Free Press raised the issue of Pinkston's employment of his wife and brother-in-law in May, Pinkston has told the DA's conference that he intends to move both relatives to the county payroll in order to avoid a potential violation of state nepotism law, according to emails the conference sent to state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga.

According to the conference, at least one of those changes wouldn't be made until after Aug. 1 — which made Gardenhire question whether the date represented a vesting interest for one of the relatives, which he said would constitute fraud.

The personnel records show that Aug. 1 will mark the one-year anniversary of Pinkston's brother-in-law joining the DA's office and the one-year anniversary of his wife being fully paid by the state, without supplement from the county.

Pinkston's wife, Melydia Clewell, received between $11,350 and $14,000 in county supplements annually from 2016 until August 2020, plus a one-time payment of $4,750 paid by county supplement at Pinkston's request in 2018. Her current annual salary is $87,948 in her position as chief of staff.

A spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Human Resources said no details could be provided on any potential benefit for the Clewells accruing on Aug. 1, as they are employees of the judicial branch.

Multiple phone and email requests for comment sent to the director and deputy director of the DA's conference about the matter have not been answered.

Last week, Boyd wrote in an email to Hamilton County Commission Chairman Chip Baker and other county officials in an attempt to head off any attempt by Pinkston to shift the Clewell salaries to the county payroll.

"According to an article in today's [Times Free Press], DA Pinkston intends on placing his wife and brother-in-law's salaries on the county, which is in direct conflict with the budget we just approved and his own answer to my direct question concerning who was covering their salaries, the state or the county," Boyd wrote. "He indicated to the commission no relative of his was being paid by the county in the 2022 budget.

"If their salaries end up being paid by the county, I intend to bring this issue before the entire commission for a determination as to how we can deal with a DA being less than truthful with the commission and the public," he added. "I consider this a serious breach of ethics and confidence in the leader of a department of justice that must be held to the highest standards of both."

In a second email, Boyd said Pinkston needs to address the commission about the issue.

"As I understand from our call, the commissioners can amend the county budget to reduce the number of positions and/or the total payroll the county pays for in the DA's office," Boyd wrote Friday. "If my understanding is correct, we need to review his payroll closely and determine our position if he indeed transfers his wife and brother-in-law from the state payroll to the county.

"I agree we need to ask him to come before the commissioners and explain exactly what is going on. No third party explanation."

Baker told the Times Free Press on Tuesday that Pinkston was asked to come before the commission but said he would be unavailable both of the last two Wednesdays of July.

"We can't force him to be there," Baker said Tuesday, adding that there had been no efforts made to move the employees to the county, which was corroborated by the finance department.

"We definitely are keeping an eye on it, but at this point, there's no movement that I'm aware of," Baker said. "And he does have an approved budget."

By not making either of the two earliest meetings following the request, Pinkston will likely not appear before the commission until after the Aug. 1 anniversary.

Pinkston has not released any additional statement on the matter since May 13, when he said his actions were "both legal and ethical."

The Times Free Press requested travel records for Pinkston and Melydia Clewell for 2020 to the present, and the office this week responded that there are no such records.

"We have not incurred any travel or expenses open to public inspection," said Clewell, who handles public records requests for the office.

She said travel and expense records for Kerry Clewell on open investigations are not currently available but may be at a later date.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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