Second in a 3-Part Series: Distractions difficult for Bebb: Outgoing DA offers personal insights on final day
by BRIAN GRAVES Banner Staff Writer
Jun 30, 2014 | 1804 views | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Steve Bebb
Steve Bebb
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Tenth Judicial District Attorney Steve Bebb told Gov. Bill Haslam’s office last month he had decided to step down a few months early from the position he had been elected to eight years ago.

The decision for the early departure was no doubt in part due to the stress, distractions and angst Bebb has faced — while still trying to do his job as the area’s highest-ranking law enforcement officer — in knocking back one accusation after another from a Chattanooga newspaper and one state legislator in particular.

All formal complaints have been dismissed. Tennessee Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr. found no prosecutable violations. And, the state Senate let the recommendation for his removal from a state House oversight committee die, for lack of action.

Despite the move to remove him at the end, there was what he called “pressure” to go into the office to begin with eight years ago.

“The first two people to talk to me about running for DA were Bill [Haslam] and [Judge] Amy Reedy,” Bebb said. “At the time, I told them no.”

The discussions planted a seed, he said, but it was the desire to help law enforcement that spurred his final decision.

“Law enforcement from all four counties, when they heard rumors I might run, I got lots and lots of people saying, ‘Please do. Please do,’” he said.

He said he believes the reason the encouragement came from that sector of public service is because “they knew I cared about them.”

“When I was an assistant DA, I was either in court or out with the police at night,” Bebb recalled. “One of them told me the other day the reason he enjoyed going out [on patrol] with me was because, ‘You gave us the leadership we need to do the right thing and not cut corners.’ The really good cops want that, and most of them are good. We’re all human and people make mistakes. I’ve always said if you put 50 police officers in one room and 50 ordinary people in another, you have more people that will tell the truth in the police officer room. That’s been my experience.”

He said they knew he would fight hard for them and their cases.

“I have, but you can’t believe everything you hear. You have to look at every case,” Bebb said.

As he recalled beginning his term, he talks of how he is transitioning with his successor, Steve Crump, who won election to the office in May and is expected to possibly begin his duties as early as Tuesday.

“I’ve been meeting with Steve and he’s got his ideas and he’s made me feel real good about him being elected,” Bebb said. “He’s going to change a lot of things here.”

Bebb is quick to note he had told Crump he would support his opponent, Stephen Hatchett.

“Stephen worked for me in this office and he did a great job here,” Bebb said. “He would have been good had he been elected. There was a matter of loyalty as well in supporting Stephen and I believe Steve [Crump] understood that.”

He recalls watching the office from outside, prior to his ascension to the job, and observing the assistants who had to document everything for the boss, and ask about how to plead a case or ask a team leader.

“Frankly, it caused a backlog in the district,” Bebb said. “I made a decision coming in I would keep everyone [with one exception] in the office who asked for their job. I told them up front, ‘You took the same oath I did. As long as you talk to your witnesses, talk to the lawyer on the other side, talk to the victims, know your case, know the law, and you feel like this is justice, then you will not get any grief from me.’”

He said during the TBI investigations into the office he was asked if he agreed with every plea bargain that had been made during his term.

“I said no, but no DA can be in four counties at one time. Frankly, they would know more about the cases than I did. They were on the ground with them,” he said. “I tried to know all I could on all the important cases, but I’m still not going to interfere with the judgment of an assistant who has done their homework and has done what they think is the right thing.”

Bebb said from his experience, it seems an impossible task for a DAG to be totally involved in every case.

Another item he made sure was implemented upon taking office was setting the rule that all phone calls would be answered or returned.

“I had heard no one would return phone calls, so I made one of my rules here is you return your phone calls,” Bebb said. “I set the example, because I return every phone call. And I get phone calls from people who are mad as a hornet over the way an assistant has handled a case.”

He said he is always willing to sit down with the person, as long as the assistant is present to participate in the conversation.

“I can’t make a judgment based on one side,” Bebb said.

He said he is very proud of the staff who works at the DAG office, while noting some judicial candidates have taken some credit for the reduction of case backlogs.

“I learned a long time ago no one person can take care of a backlog, it takes a lot of cooperation,” Bebb said. “But, I have also learned the district attorney has more effect on whether there is a backlog and what can be done about it than any of the other elements of the criminal justice system.”

He said the credit for any reduction goes to the assistant DAs, the public defenders, the defense bar, judges and clerks.

“It takes a lot from everybody,” he said.

Bebb also said he is told the numbers show there have been more people sent to the penitentiary under his watch than in the eight years prior to his taking office.

“I don’t know if that’s success or not, but I think it’s what the people want,” he said.

Bebb said he doesn’t believe those numbers are a fair measure of success.

“It’s one of the things I’m proud of,” he said. “People in this community don’t realize how many come through the criminal justice system one time and we never have them again. The ones we hear about are the ones who keep coming back and back and, yes, we send those to prison.”

He said prison is generally a last resort, unless it involves a violent crime.

Bebb cites the work of probation and Community Corrections as “doing a great job.”

He notes the work of Gary Connor of the Community Corrections division, saying Connor and the division have done “a magnificent job all these years.”

He said a recent conversation between the two focused on a defendant for whom “there was no hope.”

“I intended to send him to prison, but got talked out of it on the morning of the trial,” Bebb recalled. “Gary took him to Cleveland and he is now a valuable citizen today, married with four kids.”

Bebb said he still sees the man on occasion.

“He came up and thanked me. I told him, ‘You want to know who to thank? Look in the mirror.’ He told me recently he still gets up every day and looks in the mirror and asks God to help him through one more day,” Bebb said. “I tell him he’s a success, and he did it.”

“A lot of people have let me know how much they appreciated being in that program, and I tell them all that.”

He said the man spotted him in a restaurant in later years and the waitress came over and told Bebb the man wanted to buy him breakfast.

“I said, ‘Tell him he can’t buy my breakfast. If I ever have to send him to prison, I don’t want to owe him anything,’” Bebb says with a hearty laugh.

Emotion swells and the voice shakes as Bebb recalls the man coming over to him on that occasion.

“I think we were going to shake hands, but for some reason we hugged each other,” he said. “A friend of mine came over and said, ‘I got more out of that than I got at church this morning.’ I said, ‘Me, too.’”

“That is always a greater succes than sending someone to prison,” Bebb pointed out. “I told Gary [Connor] if he got 20 violators and one comes out to be a good citizen, he’s a success. Gary has had a lot of successes.”

There have been those successes and happy days, but the last 2 1/2 years of the battering from accusations and investigations have not been taken kindly by their subject.

“I’m trying not to be bitter,” Bebb said of all the problems over the last few years.

“It was politics, but it wasn’t Republican and Democratic politics,” Bebb said. “I had almost 1,500 letters, phone calls and emails from people who saw those stories in the Chattanooga Times Free Press — they were angry. It was not politics, and it didn’t start as politics.”

Bebb said he feels the problems all began because Duff Brumley [a former investigator] was fired from the Cleveland Police Department.

“He was fired for good reason. He violated state law. He violated Cleveland Police Department policies. It’s all in his personnel files. I read it,” he said.

Bebb alleged he also made a discovery from the files of former DAG Jerry Estes “... of their complaints with Brumley.”

“Duff and I were supposedly big buddies and I thought we were. He had a key to my office and I gave him space so he could work on a triple homicide case, but once he was fired, he turned on [former CPD chief] Wes Snyder first, then he turned on me,” Bebb said. “When the City Council backed Snyder, [Brumley] turned on me. I didn’t have anybody to back me.”

He said Brumley is related to state Sen. Mike Bell’s wife.

“So, Mike Bell and Eric Watson go to the state attorney general, who is running scared because they want to get rid of him, and I’m with them on that. He’s a smart man, but he doesn’t have the guts to stand up to political pressure,” Bebb said.

He has no respect for the Chattanooga Times Free Press and the writer who wrote the series of stories that led to the months of investigations.

“[Times Free Press staff writer] Judy Walton called me not too long ago and I told her, ‘Do not ever call me again in your life. You have no ethics. You are not a journalist.’ And, I hung up on her and haven’t heard from her again,” Bebb said.

He claimed she was always provided anything she had asked for and he had answered all of her questions.

“If it didn’t fit in with Duff’s theory or her theory, it didn’t see the light of day. That paper didn’t print it,” Bebb said.

He said he was disappointed, having been a reader of the Chattanooga paper for many years.

“I’m a newspaper junkie,” Bebb said. “I read them all. If we travel to West Tennessee, I stop at every small town and get a local paper.”

He said he had heard of DAs and assistant DAs who want nothing to do with the press.

“I have found that 99 percent of the people who are in the media are trustworthy if you’re honest with them. I have told all my staff the media has a job to do just like they do. But, at the same time, I didn’t want us seeking publicity,” Bebb said.

He said although he is trying, it is “... hard not to be bitter.”

“I have feelings and I have friends and family who know all of that is a bunch of junk,” Bebb said. “Somebody told me I could sue them and own the Chattanooga Times Free Press. I told them I didn’t want to own it. I wanted to be left alone to do my job. That’s all I asked.”

Now, there is no reason to bother Bebb as he goes home and hangs up his career responsibilities.

Bebb said in leaving his office, his family is and has been “the most important thing in my life. Period.”

“I told everybody in this office when I came that to me, their family ought to come first. So, if they were a momma or a daddy and their kid has a field trip and we could do it and cover it, I wanted them to do it. That’s the way I still feel about it,” he said.

“I would not have made it these past 2 1/2 years if I hadn’t had my wife to go home to,” Bebb said. “She makes my life, and I can’t wait to spend more time with her.”

A lot has happened in the last eight years, and just before shutting the office door one last time, Bebb will reflect on the cases that made an impression on him in Tuesday’s edition of the Cleveland Daily Banner.