State legislators have expressed support for open Tennessee Bureau of Investigation files in theory, but seem less inclined to drum up an effort toward that end in the near future.
While investigative agencies in some other states allow such files to be opened, TBI case files are exempt from Tennessee’s Public Records Act. TNReport interviewed several lawmakers on the matter Tuesday as part of our effort to raise awareness for Sunshine Week.
The most recent source of focus on the issue is the case of former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner. The fallout from revelations about the former judge’s drug and alcohol addiction, and his efforts to satisfy those vices while on the bench, led to his disbarment. One of the state’s most infamous cases – that of the rape, torture and murder of Channon Christian, 21, and Christopher Newsom, 23 – is likely to be retried. More retrials could follow.
Throughout the saga, the Knoxville News Sentinel editorial board has repeatedly called for increased transparency, including the opening of TBI files in the Baumgartner case and in general.
The Knox County Commission is considering a resolution — sponsored by its chairman, Mike Hammond — that would ask the Legislature or the governor to take steps to open TBI’s full Baumgartner investigation file to public review. On Feb. 27 Hammond postponed a vote on the resolution for 30 days to see if the judge handling the file would order it be made public.
Special Judge Jon Blackwood said last week that he had “no authority whatsoever” to release what is believed to be over 1,000 pages of the TBI’s Baumgartner case file. Blackwood did release 155 pages of the file in December, but said Friday that if the rest of the file is to be released, the “ball is in the state legislature’s court.”
But legislators aren’t particularly eager to touch the issue, either.
“The push has been there, but you have a judge that has ruled, ‘No, we’re not going to release it,’ and so far, the way our government is set up, when a judge declares something it’s a little hard to overrule that,” said Knoxville Republican Rep. Bill Dunn.
In the case of the Baumgartner file, Dunn said he does favor bringing the entire file to light, eventually.
“Sometimes you get into legal questions, which is beyond my expertise,” he said. “But as a citizen and someone who’s going to be paying all those extra taxes for what happened because of what Judge Baumgartner did, it seems it needs to be released, at least as much as can be released, and then over time we need to see 100 percent of it.”
Aside from the Christian/Newsom case, it’s unclear how many challenges and retrials will result from the legal tree poisoned by Baumgartner’s misdeeds, the News-Sentinel reported last month.
(According to prosecutors) Baumgartner presided over 54 trials during the three years a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe showed he was committing crimes related to prescription drug abuse. In that same time period, he handled thousands of pleas, sentencings and probation violation hearings.
Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, said he’s “absolutely” in favor of open TBI files and has indeed called for the release of one with his name on it.
Last June, the TBI launched an investigation to determine if Shipley and Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, had exerted improper influence over a state nursing board that had disciplined three nurses from their region of the state. No evidence of wrongdoing was found, and no charges were filed.
In January, Shipley told TNReport that he planned to push for a House committee to subpoena the case file. He has not followed through on that pledge.
Now, he said, his duties in the legislature come first, but at some point he will return to the issue of the file, which he said contains the identity of someone who committed a felony by filing a false report.
Of the Baumgartner case, Shipley said he favors openness as a means for holding all public officials to an equal level of accountability.
“Admittedly, I am not as familiar with [the Baumgartner case] as I am this other one. I think if the legislature asks for something, they need to be forthcoming,” he said. “We have detected missteps by the judiciary, we have detected and discovered missteps by the district attorneys and so on and so forth. And they need to be just as accountable to the people as we are.”
Gov. Bill Haslam, formerly the mayor of Knoxville before assuming Tennessee’s highest elected office, told reporters Monday that he didn’t know enough about the details of the Baumgartner case to have an “educated opinion,” and that his feelings on increased transparency with regards to TBI files are balanced by the interests of law enforcement.
“My sense is, whenever there’s information that would be helpful to the public, if there’s not a real reason not to, that should be open,” he said. “But I also realize there’s issues and times with law enforcement when there are really good reasons to keep that information until the whole legal process is worked through.”