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RNA files ethics complaint against local law firm

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The Rutherford Neighborhood Alliance filed a complaint with the county's Ethics Committee. COURTESY IMAGE

A citizens group is challenging billing practices by the county's legal firm and seeking an investigation into possible violations of state law and legal conduct rules, as well as county ethics policy.

The Rutherford Neighborhood Alliance filed an ethics complaint June 13 with the county's Ethics Committee after "scrutinizing" the county legal services agreement and six years of invoices submitted by the firm of Hudson, Reed and McCreary, PLLC, formerly Cope, Hudson, Reed and McCreary.

The complaint is filed against Roger Hudson, James Cope, his son Evan Cope, Nicholas Christiansen, Blake Garner, Jeffrey Reed and Josh McCreary, who took over as county attorney when the elder Cope resigned amid an insider trading charge in 2016.

In May, the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility suspended Cope's law license for 25 months based on his October 2016 guilty plea in federal court to criminal insider trading charges. Cope admitted making $56,000 in "unrealized ill-gotten gains" in January 2016 as a director of Pinnacle Financial Partners while it was in the process of acquiring Avenue Holding of Nashville.

The RNA contends the firm committed two violations: one in which the personal interest of a law firm's officers is prohibited and another prohibiting solicitation of unlawful compensation.

The citizens group's complaint focuses on a May 2012 invoice in which the firm billed Rutherford County $10,030 for time spent by its six members discussing contract negotiations with the county government.

County Attorney Josh McCreary issued a statement June 13 stating, "No one in our firm has received or seen the alleged ethics complaint submitted by the individual or individuals who refer to themselves as the Rutherford Neighborhood Alliance."

McCreary said based on his understanding of the allegations, the items raised are "many years old, have been previously addressed with the Rutherford County Commission and Rutherford County administration, and determined to be without merit."

The RNA's letter to Teb Batey of the Rutherford County Ethics Committee points toward state law, which requires conflicts of interest to be disclosed in a "very" public manner.

"There is no documentation on such public disclosure being made by the County Employee/Lawyer and the Firm. Had they adhered to this rule, one would expect to see evidence of conflicts, not just in the case of the Legal Services Agreement, but every time an issue arose with any of the clients listed on their website," the letter states.

The RNA letter also references state law prohibiting unlawful compensation, situations in which a public servant requests a benefit knowing that the action was to be done without payment or a lower level of compensation. Solicitation of unlawful compensation is a Class E felony, it notes.

"At the time that the Legal Services Agreement was being created, James Cope was considered a county employee and public servant. When he and the other partners in the Firm each billed for time spent creating the Legal Services Agreement, was he not in violation of this Tennessee Code?" the letter asks.

Cope negotiated a contract for the county attorney at $6,000 a month, $72,000 a year, plus all benefits typically granted to county employees. Later, he added a provision - approved by the County Commission - naming McCreary as county attorney if something happened that would stop Cope from handling the job.

The complaint contends the Cope firm violated conflict of interest guidelines in the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct by constructing its own legal services agreement. The RNA refers to a rule stating: "The lawyer's own interests should not be permitted to have an adverse effect on the representation of a client."

It asks the question: "Did James Cope not exercise a personal interest when he used his employment with the County as a means of enriching himself via his law firm? The idea that the Firm would charge taxpayers to create a document that they designed to protect and enrich themselves, shows it had a 'personal interest.'"

The letter also points out the Cope firm's client list included so many public utilities and developers that any partner in the firm would need to recuse himself from representing the county.

The firm's other clients range from Middle Tennessee Electric Membership and Consolidated Utility District to the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce, State Farm, Exxon, Lowe's, Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, Demos' Steak and Spaghetti, Pinnacle National Bank, Ascend Federal Credit Union, First Bank, Ole South Properties, Park Trust Development and Murfreesboro Medical Clinic to Reeves-Sain Family of Medical Services. The firm also represents the Rutherford County Board of Education.

In addition, the letter raises questions about Evan Cope's relationship to James Cope, how he is compensated and whether that is a violation of the county's ethics policy dealing with family members.

The RNA wraps up its letter asking whether another firm should have been paid a flat fee to write the legal services contract, eliminating the "slightest indication" the Cope firm have any other direct financial involvement with the county.

"So blatant is the direct financial interest that firm, in the (legal services agreement), grants themselves an annual raise in Section V.J. despite the fact that, generally speaking, no other business owner or employee in the private sector has such a guarantee that their incomes will increase," the letter states.

The group requests a formal investigation into possible violations and appropriate action be taken if violations are found.

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