By Steve Hunley

The ethics complaint filed by perennial candidate Bo Bennett against Knox County Commissioners Charles Busler and Bob Thomas has gone from a circus sideshow to an outrageous witch-hunt. Bennett’s complaint was based upon little more than a news story in the Knoxville News Sentinel, allowing the joyous opportunity for the Sentinel to feast on its own carrion. Even at the root of the complaint, once politics is set aside, is a golf tournament sponsored by none other than the News Sentinel. The reporter writing the flow of stories resulting from the complaint for the News Sentinel, flatly refused to cooperate with the thorough investigation completed by Law Director Bud Armstrong’s office.

At the heart of this complaint lies political motivation, something Bo Bennett denies. Yet Bennett was defeated in a bid for the Knox County Commission four years ago by Charles Busler and is off and running for Circuit Court Clerk this year. Bob Thomas is a candidate for Knox County mayor in the Republican primary on May 1. It takes little imagination and even less credulity to deduce the charges are politically motivated, nor would it be the first time ethics complaints were filed for political reasons. Bennett’s complaint barely reaches the level of “hearsay” evidence, as the source was the original story in the Knoxville News Sentinel. If you are dizzy by this point, it is precisely because this is as circular as a bowling ball.

The hearing by the Knox County Ethics Committee last week was little more than a travesty of justice. Chairman Jonathan Cooper seemed to be anything but fair and impartial, only begrudgingly giving attorneys representing Thomas a continuance, a courtesy routinely granted by every court in the land when sought the first time. As Cooper is himself an attorney, it is hardly a concept that could be foreign to him. It is surpassingly curious that the date selected by Cooper for the hearing, April 13, was precisely the one day when Thomas’s attorney had a full schedule of court appearances.

There are provisions which are supposed to protect people when an ethics complaint is filed – – – the nine member panel must vote unanimously to find an ethics violation and all nine must be present for the vote. Apparently Jonathan Cooper finds that language ambiguous or simply doesn’t care. There is a rush to come to some kind of finding before the May 1 primary. Is there any reason the ethics committee could not have a full hearing and come to a finding on any date after the May 1 primary election? Apparently not, which raises the notion the ethics committee is being used for a political witch-hunt to injure candidates inside the primary.

This is not the first time an ethics body has been used for political purposes and sadly, it likely will not be the last. The most fundamental aspect of American justice is the right of any person accused of either an infraction of the law or a serious crime is to be represented by competent legal counsel and face his or her accuser. The very idea Bo Bennett is merely a good Samaritan pushing a complaint solely out of his righteous conviction is utterly preposterous. Perhaps the only thing more preposterous is the fact the complaint is manufactured through a story appearing in the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Clearly Jonathan Cooper and some members of the ethics committee care little about even the appearance of fairness and impartiality. That alone is cause enough for concern considering just what an ethics committee should be; the rush to judgment before the primary election reveals something at the very least slightly disturbing. This hearing is not about right or wrong; it is not about fairness, nor is it really determining whether there has been an actual ethics violation. It is about allowing the Knoxville News Sentinel to construct its own series of events based not on facts, but to push its own narrative. The Sentinel has done the very same thing with Mayor Tim Burchett recently. Is there any objective person in Knox County who believes the editor of the News Sentinel hasn’t carried out a shameless vendetta against Burchett in the pages of the daily newspaper?

The series of articles appearing in the Sentinel about the county’s ambulance contract, the gold tournament and Bob Thomas and Charles Busler have rearranged facts, completely ignored other facts, and pushed a narrative, to put it kindly, that simply isn’t true. Clearly, the Sentinel hopes to affect the outcome of the ethics committee hearing. Evidently that strategy has worked with Jonathan Cooper. Whether the other members of the ethics committee will allow themselves to be influenced remains to be seen.

When a community’s ethics committee allows itself to be swayed so easily and again – – – the only “evidence” is a story appearing in the Knoxville News Sentinel – – – it raises the question of justice having been circumvented, if not downright perverted. It raises the question of the constitutional rights of individuals having been trampled. The county commission clearly needs to pay more attention to the quality of people selected to serve on the ethics committee, people of integrity and ability, who are immune to popular opinion and coverage by local news media. Like Caesar’s wife, the ethics committee should be above reproach. Otherwise it will not mete out justice, but retribution for someone else’s political gain.