Campaign sign theft charges against Rutherford County Commissioner Joe Frank Jernigan are scheduled for trial Sept. 10, but a Cannon County judge will hear the case after General Sessions Judge David Loughry recused himself.
Jernigan is accused of stealing four signs belonging to candidate Matt Harvey – at a total cost of $12 – in early April, about a month before the Republican primary. Jernigan defeated Harvey in the primary for the District 6 seat in southeastern Rutherford County, but Harvey said Tuesday he is running as a write-in candidate in the Aug. 7 county general election.
General Sessions Judge Susan Melton of Woodbury will hear the case, according to Loughry, who said he recused himself because Jernigan serves on the County Commission’s budget committee, which recently approved his fiscal 2015 budget.
“I hoped they could work something out, but they want to go to trial,” Loughry said. “I’m just not going to take part in a trial.”
Jernigan’s attorney said Tuesday he and the district attorney requested the trial, but he believes the charges have no merit.
“This is a frivolous claim brought for political advantage,” Tucker said. “We will dispose of it at an appropriate time.”
By the time the case goes to trial, Jernigan – if he defeats Harvey a second time – will have been sworn in again for another term.
“They’re trying to make sure (Jernigan) doesn’t have to plead guilty to anything until after he gets re-elected,” said Harvey, a Murfreesboro Police officer for 10 years.
Harvey said he had heard District Attorney Bill Whitesell is recusing himself from the case, as well. Whitesell could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Jernigan, 69, is accused of stealing Harvey’s election signs from property on Melstone Court in the Buchanan area. The county commissioner stepped down from his post as assistant superintendent of the Rutherford County Highway Department after Harvey filed the complaint against him. He reportedly was driving a county vehicle and was on county time when the incident happened.
At this rate, Harvey estimates it will be early next year before the case is heard in court.
“I think they think I’m going to say ‘Forget it’ and drop it,” Harvey said. “They’ve got another thing coming if they think that’s the case.”
Harvey said he did not pull up any of Jernigan’s signs during the campaign.