In the case of accusations of financial and professional misconduct, excessive spending, cronyism and other questionable practices that have been aimed at 10th Judicial District Attorney General Steve Bebb and his office, we weren’t convinced that enough had been heard from his side.
It is why our newspaper made the decision last week to afford an opportunity to the reigning district attorney general to sit down and talk. He accepted our offer and hosted a lengthy visit by two Cleveland Daily Banner editors to his downtown Cleveland office.
Also sitting in on the interview was Assistant District Attorney General Stephen Hatchett.
As we first editorialized a week ago, let us be unmistakably clear — as we did with DA Bebb and ADA Hatchett — as to our intent. Prior to our interview, multiple accusations had been thrown at the 10th Judicial District office. Our lengthy session with the four-county district’s leading anti-crime figure was not to defend Bebb against these charges, and neither was it to further persecute the veteran prosecutor.
It is our belief that until the Banner’s series of articles Sunday through Thursday, Bebb’s position had been left incomplete and we wanted to go to the source for answers. Rhetoric from political rivals, selected details from past investigations and juicy finger pointing by former law enforcement employees had dominated media coverage and street-corner conversation.
Due to the seriousness of these allegations, Bebb has the right to be heard and to have his explanations presented to the residents of the 10th Judicial District in an impartial manner ... if he chooses to make public comment. He elected to use this forum to answer many charges, while some may still linger.
This was the purpose of our newspaper’s five-part series, capably written by Managing Editor David Davis.
Now that the series has concluded, and DA Bebb has been given the opportunity to defend his actions and those of his district office, is the district attorney general exonerated from all unofficial allegations? Absolutely not.
Does it point an even longer finger of guilt at the reigning state prosecutor and those who work within his realm? Absolutely not.
Does it mean Bebb might be guilty of some infractions, but not guilty of others? Perhaps.
Does it mean he is guilty simply of making a handful of poor decisions, including people management, without the intent of wrongdoing? Again, perhaps.
But such judgment is not left to us. Nor should this kind of power be granted to any accuser, regardless of source. Times such as these remind us of our ethical mandate as a newspaper — to report the news fairly, accurately and without undue prejudice toward either side. If we commit a wrong in the doing, such as with our accuracy or objectivity, then it is our responsibility to make it right.
And now the burden of guilt or innocence lies with the investigation by former Tennessee Attorney General Paul Summers, a former criminal appeals court judge and district attorney general, who has been named to lead the inquiry by District Attorney Conference Executive Director Wally Kirby. Summers’ investigation will be joined by the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Office of the State Comptroller.
It is not an insignificant point that Bebb himself asked Kirby to launch the investigation. Bebb requested that a pro-tem district attorney, of Kirby’s choosing, “investigate any allegations of impropriety in this office, either by myself or any employees.”
In some corners of everyday dialogue, the power of perception and court of public opinion have already convened. Much of this influence can be attributed to unrelenting news media scrutiny.
For this reason, we suggest a common-sense approach.
Let investigator Summers do his job. Let all who are interviewed lend an open ear and factual voice. And let everyone else stay out of the fray.
Justice will prevail, one way or the other. It won’t be easy and it isn’t likely that everyone will be happy.
But that’s OK ... because at a time like this legal resolution should be uppermost in everyone’s minds, not the number of smiles nor frowns on everyone’s faces.
As has been said, “Where there is smoke, there is fire,” and a significant plume of smoke appears to be rising from these incidents.
But we can only speculate as to whether this smoke is coming from the tiny flame of a campfire or the blazing inferno of a bonfire. At this point, we simply do not know. And frankly, it is not our job to serve as judge and jury. Our mandate is to report. General Summers and the capable staffs of three state offices will investigate and publicly release their findings.
And then we will again report.