Tennessee DA approved supplemental pay for relatives
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s district attorney for Hamilton County used county funds to supplement state pay for his wife and brother-in-law, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported.
At a May county budget hearing, Neal Pinkston told a county commissioner no relatives were on the county payroll. However, records from the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference show Pinkston’s brother-in-law, Kerry Clewell, is on the state payroll but receives about 30% of his salary from the county. Pinkston’s wife, Melydia Clewell, also received supplements from the county until last August.
Moreover, Pinkston has told the DA’s conference he intends to move both relatives to the county payroll in order to avoid a potential violation of state nepotism law.
“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?” County Commissioner Tim Boyd said on Wednesday, after learning of the supplements.
Pinkston has not released any statement on the matter since May 13, when he said his management decisions were “both legal and ethical.”
Pinkston married Melydia Clewell, a subordinate at the DA’s office, in November 2019, but the marriage did not become public knowledge until May 2021. In the meantime, Clewell’s brother, Kerry Clewell, had been hired at the office as well. He started work last August, receiving a $48,992 salary, $14,000 of which is paid by a Hamilton County supplement, at Pinkston’s discretion.
State records list Kerry Clewell as a secretary, although Pinkston lists him as an investigator, and the office has not explained the discrepancy.
Melydia Clewell joined the office in 2015, receiving between $11,350 and $14,000 in county supplements annually from 2016 until August 2020, plus a one-time payment of $4,750 from a county supplement at Pinkston’s request in 2018. Her current annual salary is $87,948 in her position as chief of staff.
Emails from the DA’s conference to state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, state that Pinkston intends to move his relatives to the county payroll, although at least one of those changes wouldn’t be made until after Aug. 1. The date has made Gardenhire question whether it represents a vesting interest, which he said would constitute fraud. Aug. 1 will mark both the one-year anniversary of Kerry Clewell joining the DA’s office and the one-year anniversary of Melydia Clewell being fully paid by the state, without supplement from the county.
Multiple phone calls and emails to the director and deputy director of the DA’s conference about the matter were not answered.
Last week, Boyd wrote in an email to Hamilton County officials to head off any attempt by Pinkston to shift the Clewell salaries to the county payroll, saying that would be “in direct conflict with the budget we just approved and his own answer to my direct question concerning who was covering their salaries.”
Hamilton County Commission Chairman Chip Baker said 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. 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.