Davidson County’s clerks show a history of bad judgment

Sunday, July 17, 2011 at 9:05pm
ArriolaMain.jpg
John Arriola 

Former Davidson County Clerk Bill Covington, who left office in 2006, now owns and operates a small business called Nashville Weddings. On his website, Covington notes he is “Nashville’s most experienced wedding officiate … [who] has performed thousands of wedding ceremonies for couples from all over the world.” 

Covington should consider hiring current County Clerk John Arriola, a guy who might just accept the offer. 

Late one recent Friday afternoon, a time notorious for burying news, Mayor Karl Dean announced he was directing the Metro Division of Internal Audit to conduct an examination of Arriola’s Davidson County Clerk’s Office. It came after a series of WTVF-Channel 5 reports revealed damning allegations, including that the clerk had been charging a $40 fee to marry couples, even though it’s illegal for a public official to profit from his office. Arriola told reporter Phil Williams the payment is considered a “gratuity,” a stipulation that made it legal. 

Although the Metro audit of the clerk’s office is to focus on its fiscal health, Arriola likely spurred Dean’s directive after the beleaguered clerk said he took the gratuity in cash only, failed to note whether couples had been given an option not to offer the gratuity, and said he kept no detailed records for the receipt of the cash. Williams reported Arriola could have generated as much as $36,000 any given year for his justice of the peace work. 

Perhaps no one should be surprised. The clerk’s office offers a fascinating history of setbacks, scandals and leaders with the impressive ability to bring public embarrassment upon themselves. 

 

Covington oversaw the Davidson County Clerk’s Office from 1986 to 2006, a 20-year run that saw the affable man garner respectable props overall while expanding his eye-catching list of friends — and foes. In 2002, Channel 5’s Williams exposed Covington for using Metro employees to make beer runs and work in his private business. Unfazed — and as upbeat as always — Covington put the matter behind him and won re-election before retiring in 2006. 

“Covington was one of those officials who flew just a little too close to the flame,” said one veteran observer of the local political scene who asked to go unnamed. “He was very colorful.” 

Covington’s predecessor was William “Bill” McPherson, an outspoken former Metro councilman who once owned a car wash on Thompson Lane and called folks “Sweet Baby.” McPherson served from 1980 to 1986 — a time when the city was transitioning from elected leaders who were almost exclusively male. He deftly maneuvered to place on the ballot various odd and unnecessary Metro Charter amendments (such as a mandatory drive-through window at the Howard Building), all of which voters rejected. In addition, some female employees in the office made sexual harassment claims against McPherson, adding to the clerk’s woes. 

“All three have had their problems,” said Pat Nolan, a senior vice president with DVL Public Relations and Advertising and host of Channel 5’s Inside Politics. “They’ve all run into difficulties at various times of their careers, usually toward the latter part.” 

Nolan noted that in the past 31 years, there have only been three clerks. 

“Maybe being in office that long led them to take things for granted, maybe more so than they should have,” he said. “It’s not a good trend to have three in a row in the Davidson County Clerk’s Office [who have served while creating controversy].”

The clerk’s office is a state constitutional entity that requires its leaders to be elected. Similarly, the Tennessee Constitution requires every county to elect an assessor of property, district attorney, public defender, register of deeds, sheriff and trustee. 

Because the clerks (including those of the courts) are elected, it is difficult to remove them other than via the ballot box. An exception is David Torrence, the disgraced Criminal Court clerk who resigned, effective Friday, after WSMV-Channel 4’s Jeremy Finley gumshoed his way into a damaging report. Hall revealed that Torrence worked only three days a week and used a government vehicle to make trips to purchase wine. Originally, Torrence was defiant, seemingly nonplussed by negative public outcry and determined to stay in office. But when District Attorney Torry Johnson said he would consider ouster proceedings, the embattled Torrence decided to walk away. 

Whether Arriola will face a similar ouster scenario — or whether the audit will reveal activities that could lead to serious charges — is uncertain. But last week’s Channel 5 story revealing the clerk asked for a tricked-out Metro-provided gas-guzzling Chevy Tahoe instead of a more efficient vehicle didn’t help matters. 

Arriola and Covington did not return phone calls seeking comment. 

George Harrison Cate Jr., Metro’s first vice mayor (1963 to 1966) and a local attorney with an independent practice, said that because the clerk positions are constitutional offices, the clerks themselves are “semi-independent.” 

“That’s part of the problem,” Cate said. “[Clerks] exist independently of the mayor and the Metro Council. Who supervises them? There is really nobody. They are their own bosses.” 

Cate said at some point the matter could merit further study. 

“It’s unfortunate, because we’ve had some people in that office who’ve done a credible job,” he added, citing both Covington and Arriola. “But the incidents of recent times have put a cloud on the position.” 

 

The Davidson County Clerk’s Office is not alone in its run of embarrassments. For example, the Criminal Court Clerk’s Office has seen troubles beyond the Torrence matter. In the late 1970s, federal agents raided the office of Clerk Earl Hawkins, who was later indicted and charged with, among others, arranging for the dismissal of DUI citations, conspiracy and perjury. Found guilty of conspiracy, Hawkins resigned from office in exchange for the dropping of the remaining counts and so as to not face a re-trial.

John Lashlee, Hawkins’ replacement, was considered somewhat controversial, if anything because the Criminal Court judges didn’t care for his organizational approach. 

In 2007, former Davidson County Juvenile Court clerk Vic Lineweaver was found to be at home in a bathrobe while he told Channel 4’s Finley, via phone, he was at the office working. Worse, a judge found him in contempt of court for failing to produce court documents, many of which were ultimately never found. 

Metro Councilman Michael Craddock, who Torrence defeated in 2010 in the Criminal Court Clerk’s race, said unchecked ego might be the best explanation for the behavior various clerks have exhibited. 

“I think now, more than ever, elected officials have forgotten that they’re supposed to be there to serve people as opposed to being served,” said Craddock, who is actively lobbying his council colleagues to choose him to replace Torrence (former Vice Mayor Howard Gentry Jr. is the other candidate to date). “There seems to be a mindset that once they are there, they can do what they want.” 

Nolan said the clerks’ missteps over the past 30 years should be kept in perspective. 

“Usually most of [the clerks] have gotten tripped up over their personal idiosyncrasies or doing things they shouldn’t do on a personal basis rather than their offices not doing well,” he said. “But, obviously, a couple have had more serious issues that do relate to the operations of their office.” 

Political observers note that because clerks are not appointed by mayors, don’t make policy and often can avoid the public and media spotlight, they might be apt to act more independently than otherwise — thus risking their egos getting the best of them. 

Nolan said clerks’ bad behavior shouldn’t be blamed wholly on the fact they don’t have to answer directly to a mayor. 

“I don’t want to say that it’s because they are elected,” he said, “that they think they are bulletproof.”  

14 Comments on this post:

By: Chris72 on 7/17/11 at 11:53

They do think they're bulletproof......and above the law.......and can do as they please. As they've proven year after year after year. I've said it before, and it's mentioned here, not only with the clerk's office, but all these elected positions. They get to where they're there for so long, they think they're invincible. Same deal with a sheriff we had in our county for 20 years. Need to put time limits on all the elected officials. They get too complacent and arrogant. Or, put better safe guards in place that makes it easier to toss them out when they're NOT doing their jobs. Why is it, TN politicians, from the bottom all the way up, are really corrupt and just all around suck????? From one end of the state to the other, it's really amazing. I don't recall ever living in a state with so much corruption and just outright I can do as I please attitudes in all the government levels. Time to stop electing these folks because you "know" them or oh they're so and so's brother's cousin's wife's father in law......that's a BIG part of it I think-the cronyism and nepotism is overfloweth here.....time for a change me thinks!!!

By: bfra on 7/18/11 at 2:56

“That’s part of the problem,” Cate said. “[Clerks] exist independently of the mayor and the Metro Council. Who supervises them? There is really nobody. They are their own bosses.”
=====================================================

So how is Dean ordering an audit? This must be another political ploy, for the election.

By: T-BONE on 7/18/11 at 6:39

FOGHORN LEGHORN says...."Now them fellers are a just ah tryen to get thems the Amerakin dream, a little fraud, graft, and corruption ain't no big deal; THEM IS JUST GOOD OLE BOYS!"...Nashville style!
TIME TO "HAMMER DOWN" David Torrence needs to be stripped of his $80,000 a year pension (you are paying for it)! YOU DO NOT REWARD NEGATIVE BEHAVIOR!

John Arriola Needs to be "convited" and do some PRISON TIME!

CITIZENS...LETS DO IT! LET THE PROTEST BEGIN, LETS GET ORGANIZED!

By: govskeptic on 7/18/11 at 6:54

Torrence's behavior (not working) has gone on for years and years, it's too bad so
many knew this but only comes out at retirement time. The audit of the last 3 yrs.
showing average of 19 hrs per week should certainly be part of the "Retirement
system audit" on amount of monthly retirement due him but, of course,. it isn't!
Thankfully there's been enough pressure on DA Johnson to look into these two
Clerk's office's for wrong doing. Other than elections, that's about the only way
these "Over Privileged" elected Office holders can be held accountable!

The Mayor not wanting to lose a single vote sits MUM on these taxpayer frauds.

By: budlight on 7/18/11 at 11:02

I hope ya'll don't re-elect Dean.

I know he lost my vote and any other vote I can influence. I'd love to see Keeton roll over him. Let's support Keeton.

By: notthatguy on 7/18/11 at 12:49

I heard of a policeman that was taking cash for not ticketing speeders. I also know of a 16-year-old that was caught shoplifting at Walmart. There's a lady in our town that was caught for a DUI while driving a Toyota. Using the logic embraced in this forum, all policemen are dishonest, anyone under eighteen is a thief, and anyone that drives a Toyota is a drunk. To heap ALL elected officials and government employees together and say that they are all corrupt is very easy to do, but it also is a sign of a an EXTREMELY narrow-minded individual making that assessment. I dare anyone to think of any profession anywhere that has no "bad apples". That does NOT make everyone else engaged in that professon rise to the same level of rottenness. I, too, am a taxpayer and a voter. I, too, take offense to my tax dollars being squandered by elected officials and government employees. But I also take offense to anyone telling me that all the other people in office are as reprehensible as a select few. I'm proud of our system of government. (Other forms haven't seemed to have gone over too well in places like Iraq and Lybia, have they?)
By the way, IF Torrence and Arriola ARE in fact at fault, and they are residents of Davidson County, I supposed they rest of us who live are just as bad as they are. But why stop there? They're Tennesseans. Maybe everyone from Memphis to Mountain CIty should report to their local jail to be booked. (No, wait--the jail is run by the Government...we're sunk.)

By: pamw on 7/18/11 at 1:03

John Arriola isnt doing anything new. Apparently he was trained when he got that job to do that because Bill Covington married me in 1990 and I was told it cost $50.00 for fishing supplies for underpriviledge kids. Seriously people is it that big of a deal. If you think you can do better run for that position. I think $50.00 is pretty cheap to get married.

By: tn.native on 7/18/11 at 1:52

John A. should not be using his position of power to extract money, tax free, for performing his public duty. Getting married is usually a "feel good" moment so the $$ easily flows to his pocket and since it's cash he can spend it however he wishes and that is the corruption of accepting it. To say everyone does it does not make that OK. Wouldn't we all like to marry about 4 people a day and make around $160 a day, tax free in cash? That's about one hour of work! Sheese!

By: 5 Fingers on 7/18/11 at 1:53

http://nashvillebunion.blog.com/2011/07/18/cm-steine-sets-baseball-card-auction-to-raise-campaign-cash/

By: bfra on 7/18/11 at 3:06

5 Fingers - Wonder why they didn't say "HOT" baseball cards? LOL

By: onewhisper2 on 7/18/11 at 5:25

Arriola performed my wedding ceremony at the courthouse and no one ever asked for a dime. We paid for the license. He married us and we were done. He even stood up, straightened his tie and put on his jacket.

By: Nitzche on 7/18/11 at 6:02

Chip Forrester says it is the republicans fault! Maybe even Big OIL? Some right wing conspiracy that made the do it?

By: las04 on 7/18/11 at 10:17

T-BONE, I like the way you think.....hang their ass, cut the rope and watch them fall. They aint worth the dirt on my shoes.

By: govskeptic on 7/20/11 at 8:46

Arriola now says dollars collected from marriage ceremonies for those persons who
are embarrassed to get married in front of anyone else will go to charity.
I suppose that charity is the "Big old 20" wheels for little boys fund" will be the first to
receive those dollars.