Note: This story was last updated at 10:06 a.m. July 22.
CLINTON—The legal fees in a few high-profile disputes between top Anderson County officials could approach a half-million dollars, and Anderson County commissioners should all seek their own legal counsel in an ouster lawsuit filed against the law director, stunned commissioners were told Monday.
Subpoenas have already been issued in the ouster suit, and several officials, including a few County Commissioners, have reportedly received letters asking them to waive their attorney-client privilege.
Anderson County Commissioner Myron Iwanski, who is former interim mayor, said some of the records he’s been asked to provide go back 10 years, and some of them are personnel records. Iwanski said he needs legal representation because he doesn’t want to disclose anything improper, a mistake that could lead to another lawsuit.
“It’s about trying to do what’s right for the county,” Iwanski said.
He said former Anderson County Jail Administrator Avery Johnson has also been served with a subpoena and will need legal representation.
“This is just the start of the legal battle,” Iwanski said.
He said the legal fees in an earlier case could be close to $200,000. In that case, Anderson County Sheriff Paul White filed a salary suit against Mayor Terry Frank after she refused to sign a salary agreement. She said it included more money for salaries than commission had authorized.
Iwanski said the costs of the legal disputes could rise to close to a half-million dollars.
“That’s just craziness,” he said.
Commissioner Zach Bates, who unsuccessfully ran against Frank in the Republican primary in May, said the ouster suit is now one of the most expensive undertakings in the county and could include personal liability for commissioners.
Besides Iwanski and Johson, others served with subpoenas in the case include Yeager and White, Anderson County Human Resources Director Cathy Best, Anderson County Schools, Anderson County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Larry Davidson, Clinton attorney David Stuart, Clinton Courier News reporter Chris Silcox, District Attorney General David Clark, LexisNexis, and telecommunication companies AT&T and Cricket. The plaintiffs are represented by Gregory Brown and Jason H. Long of Knoxville law firm Lowe, Yeager, and Brown.
“They’ve subpoenaed numerous records from different people,” Yeager said.
Yeager said his son’s phone records are among those subpoenaed. Anderson County Schools has been told to provide all employment records regarding Commissioner Whitey Hitchcock’s employment with Anderson County Schools, “including but not limited to all contracts, evaluations, investigations, reprimands, other documented adverse employment actions, and dismissals.”
The subpoenas also ask for any and all communications to and from Yeager’s cell phone—including voice, SMS, and MMS messages—from December 1, 2013, to now. Stuart’s subpoena asks for any and all communication between him and Yeager regarding any past or present Anderson County official. Johnson’s subpoena asks for any and all communications in six areas, including inmate telephone services, one of the issues in the suit, and all communications with Yeager since he retired earlier this year.
A few of those affected said the subpoenas were “a fishing expedition.”
Lynn Byrge, one of the petitioners, denied that. The only commissioners who have received subpoenas are those who might have evidence to offer, Byrge said.
“We’re not just fishing,” he said. “They’re just trying to intimidate the people who signed the petition. It won’t work.”
Byrge echoed a statement made by Anderson County Commissioner Dusty Irwin during the Monday morning meeting.
“If you don’t have to anything to hide, why do you need a lawyer?” Byrge said.
Byrge has generally declined to comment on the specifics of the ouster suit against Yeager. It was filed by 22 residents in Anderson County Chancery Court in May. It sought to remove Yeager from office, originally alleging misconduct that includes perjury, forgery, and having pornography on a county computer. Yeager, who has served for eight years, denied the accusations and said the suit is baseless, politically motivated, and unwarranted.
The petition has since been amended to add another 13 grounds for ouster.
“I think we should let it play out in court,” Byrge said.
Three of the subpoeanas—those served against Iwanski, Silcox, and White—require an appearance at Lowe, Yeager, and Brown on August 7, the same day as the Anderson County general election. Iwanski and White are both candidates in that election, while Silcox would presumably be expected to report on it.
Iwanski, who represents District 8 in Oak Ridge, said the ouster suit is an attempt to discredit Yeager, and he objected to the “hostility and divisiveness,” and the accompanying subpoenas and depositions.
“I’ve been on commission 20 years, and I haven’t seen anything like this,” Iwanski said.
Yeager recommended each commissioner seek their own legal counsel. Alternatively, the commission could hire an attorney as a group, Yeager said.
“I hate that we’re in this dilemma,” he said.
Iwanski made a motion to cover the costs of current and former employees who might need legal help in the case, and it passed 13-2.
Anderson County Commissioner Robin Biloski, who also represents District 8 in Oak Ridge, said the plaintiffs are costing the county time, money, and stress. She asked Yeager to read a list of their names during the televised meeting.
“It is just so sad,” Biloski said. “I hope those people feel terrible about what they’re doing to this county.”
Commissioner Tracy Wandell, who represents Claxton and Bull Run in District 1, said it’s disheartening that commissioners are having to hire attorneys—an “unnecessary expense”—rather than focusing on more encouraging developments.
“This is getting out of hand,” he said. “I think it’s a shame when we have to spend more time suing ourselves than in talking about positive things.”
Several commissioners said the county ought to be able to recover at least some of its legal fees if Yeager prevails. They suggested the group of taxpayers who brought the lawsuit ought to be responsible for the bills, to the extent possible, if the case is dismissed or withdrawn.
“I think that should be included,” said Anderson County Commissioner Steve Mead, who represents District 6 in Oak Ridge.
The two commissioners who voted against Iwanski’s motion to cover legal fees were John Shuey of Oak Ridge and Irwin, who represents District 3, which includes Andersonville and Norris. Commissioner Rick Meredith was absent.
Irwin said commissioners were confronted with an unfortunate dilemma, but legal fees should be absorbed by the individuals, and they should seek reimbursement only after all legal actions have concluded and only if the person is cleared of all accusations or crimes. It’s not fair to pay the legal fees, no matter the outcome, Irwin said.
“If you have nothing but the truth to say, then you don’t need legal counsel,” Irwin said.
“Being your own attorney is a fool’s way of doing business,” he said.
He said people brought into court through no fault of their own because of county business ought to be represented. The employees in this case haven’t been charged or accused, Mead said.
“They’re being drug into this at their own peril and at the peril of the county,” he said.
He said commissioners can no longer be represented by Yeager, the defendant in the case.
“We have had our free legal advice stolen from us, and so it needs to be replaced,” Mead said.
Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank questioned whether the County Commission could cover the legal fees of those not named in the lawsuit. She said no county commissioner has been sued. Free legal advice is available through the Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel, Frank said.
But commissioners said they need legal representation.
“And we need it quickly,” Iwanski said. “We need independent legal counsel.”
Byrge briefly addressed commission. He said the ouster suit is “county business, taxpayer business,” and he asked commissioners what they intend to do if the plaintiffs prevail, “which I believe we will.”
Byrge said he believes the law director ought to be elected. The position has become political, he said.
Yeager has suggested that Frank is behind the ouster suit, pointing out that Brown represented her in the salary suit and also represents the plaintiffs in the ouster suit, and adding that the petitioners in the ouster suit include allies of the mayor. But Frank has said it’s a disservice to imply that the petitioners are her allies or minions, especially since she doesn’t know all of them.
With the help of Knoxville attorney Wade V. Davies, Yeager filed a motion to dismiss on July 11. It argued that the ouster statute does not apply to the law director position, and Yeager serves “at the pleasure of the Legal Services Advisory Committee and the County Commission.” The law director can be removed without cause by that committee and the County Commission, the motion said.
Even if the ouster petition did apply, the petitioners have not presented legitimate grounds for ouster, the motion to dismiss said.
“A review of the petition shows that it is based in large part on the erroneous belief that the county law director serves as personal counsel to the county mayor and that the law director’s duty of loyalty should be only to her,” the motion said. “Mr. Yeager represents Anderson County, acting essentially as a ‘general counsel.'”
The list of petitioners has changed slightly. According to an amended petition filed June 13, they include Byrge, Mark DeVol, Ray Hagan, Toby Geren, Barbara Gasper Gregory, Clyde Cook, Doug Walden, Carnelon V. Terry, John E. Seiber, Larry Ownby, Hal M. Hagan, Phyllis H. Terry, Thomas T. Adams, Jason Stiltner, Dennis L. Pemberton, Virgil L. Rainey, Charles W. Jackson, Gary L. McLemore, Earl T. McLemore Jr., John Walker, Darlene Adams, and Tipton J. Garland.
Note: This story has been corrected to attribute a quote about needing legal representation quickly (eighth paragraph from the bottom) to Commissioner Myron Iwanski, rather than Commissioner Dusty Irwin. We apologize for the error.
More information will be added as it becomes available.