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VOL. 125 | NO. 235 | Friday, December 03, 2010

County Atty: Jackson Put Strong-Arm On Clerk Employees

By Bill Dries

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The same day last month that General Sessions Court Clerk Otis Jackson called his employees to a “mandatory” meeting about his political ambitions, one of those employees reported him to the Shelby County attorney’s office.

The same day, Nov. 4, Deputy County Attorney Danny Presley met with Jackson, told him the clerk’s office was being investigated and why. And Presley warned Jackson not to take any action against employees that could be seen as retaliatory.

After the meeting between Presley and Jackson, Clyde Barnett, identified as Jackson’s half brother and the civil administrator in the clerk’s office, began calling employees into his office to determine who had made the complaint.

“When I arrived in his office,” Lisa Wimberly, a manager in the office, said in a sworn statement taken the next day, referring to Barnett, “he told me all hell had broke loose last night. … He looked at me and asked me did I know who would have turned that in.”

Wimberly said she didn’t.

By the end of November, Presley had completed his report and concluded Jackson violated county ethics policies governing political activity on county time and coercion of county employees. He also said he was concerned that attorneys who have a lot of business in the General Sessions Court and the clerk’s office were hit up for campaign money.

County Attorney Kelly Rayne referred the matter for investigation by the Shelby County District Attorney General’s office in a criminal probe that could end Jackson’s brief time in elected office.

Jackson, a Democrat, upset Republican incumbent Chris Turner in the 2008 county elections.

Jackson has denied any wrongdoing.

The county attorney’s office report was released Thursday and offers plenty of detail that portrays Jackson as driven to raise $51,000 from or through his employees well in advance of a 2012 re-election bid.

Virginia Gail Poindexter, an administrative specialist in the clerk’s office, recalled Jackson saying at the Nov. 4 meeting, “I think I’ll be okay in the primary. Somebody is going to come after me hard in the election and I’m not going to go down easy.”

Jackson allegedly made the statement at the end of an election year that was an off year for his office, but a year in which Republicans swept every countywide office on the 2010 county general election ballot.

Another manager in the office said elected officials or their minions pawning off tickets to political fundraisers that the employees either buy or sell is common.

The report includes Wimberly’s handwritten notes of the Nov. 4 meeting at the Criminal Justice Center which later moved and was reconvened across the street at the Shelby County Courthouse.

“Mr. Jackson made a comment -- for those of you who have a tape recorder, you may wish to turn it up,” she wrote.

“He stated that he didn’t care if we had to sell peanuts or crackers,” Wimberly said later. Two other office employee also recalled Jackson using the same language in their sworn statements.

“He also mentioned that he didn’t care if we had to write a check out of our own pocket,” Wimberly continued. “He mentioned there was a layaway plan available. … And then he mentioned too that there would be a raise for some employees.”

Wimberly and the others named Joann Mims, a manager on the criminal side of the clerk’s office, as coordinating and keeping track of the progress employees made toward meeting the percentage goals for political fundraising and aggressively collecting money for fundraiser tickets.

Mims admitted in her sworn affidavit that she organized the collection of the money for tickets and toward the 2012 fundraising goals. She also said she made a spread sheet on a county computer to track employees progress in coming up with their percentages.

Wimberly said she had already been approached in October about buying tickets to a Jackson political fundraiser by Mims and another criminal court manager, Gary Ledson. The tickets were $100 each.

Wimberly said they wanted to know when she would have the money and that Mims later approached her on the same point on the same day – asking if Wimberly had the money on her.

“I told her no, that I don’t carry the checkbook,” Wimberly recalled. “She said, ‘Well, I would have thought you would have torn a check out and had one ready for me and you could whip it right on out.’ I said, ‘Well, you must be mistaken.’”

Wimberly later gave Mims money for the ticket but said she felt coerced.

“I had to do what I had to do,” she said.

Poindexter said she got the same treatment from Ledson and Mims on tickets to the October Jackson fundraiser.

“I said, ‘No, I don’t have it with me,’” she remembered telling them. “I’m not going to do it unless I go. You can sit here all day. It’s not going to happen.”

Mike Triplett, the chief principal clerk, said in his affidavit, that he gave Mims personal checks on county time for three of the tickets.

“I’m between a rock and hard place,” he said at one point in the transcript. “By me telling you that I was a civil service, civil chief and then I’m going to be promoted to manager on the 15th – with that being said, if you look at the salary of what I’m moving up to, I assumed that that’s part of it. They gave me the tickets to sell.”

A county employee since 1977, Triplett said the practice of selling or buying tickets to such events on county time was “fairly pervasive” over the years.

“You’ve got to understand times have changed,” he concluded.

Zachery Armour, finance director of the clerk’s office, said he got six tickets. The others said they got four. But Armour said he got more tickets to sell or buy because he made more.

“Everybody had to pay,” he told investigators. “It was a calculation based on what you made.”

He later added, “It wasn’t implied. But you don’t want to be the person that don’t sell your tickets. I’ll just tell you that.”

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