Ouster fees request getting cool reception

Former Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold

A citizens group is hitting a wall as it seeks help from Rutherford County to pay legal fees in its 2016 ouster case against former Sheriff Robert Arnold.

The group recently sent a letter to District Attorney General Jennings Jones notifying him it incurred $10,556 in costs, filing fees and legal expenses and requests his office to pay half the cost, $5,283. County Mayor Ernest Burgess also received a copy of the letter.

Jones declined to comment other than to say he had assisted the group and provided counseling, though he doesn’t appear inclined to help with the fees. And Burgess, who did not receive an official request for financial help, said, “We’re not a party to that responsibility for their legal fees.”

The letter from Joe Liggett, treasurer of the group, points out the law firm of Wilson, Howser and Oliver was hired to take the case and in an effort to hold down costs the group sought assistance from the District Attorney’s Office, based on state law requiring it to help citizens who file ouster lawsuits.

Liggett’s letter contends Jones assisted with the matter only after the ouster was filed and Davidson County Chancellor Bill Young asked why the district attorney general wasn’t providing help. Young heard the case in Nashville after all local judges recused themselves.

“By that time, the WHO law firm had performed all the research and investigation and had conducted the suspension hearing of Robert Arnold,” Liggett says in a statement.

The ouster was dismissed only after the hearing in which the chancellor temporarily removed Arnold from office and, finally, Arnold’s resignation. During the hearing, the chancellor “openly admonished Jennings Jones for his failure to assist,” Liggett’s letter states.

The group says it probably saved Rutherford County more than $60,000 in payroll and benefits, plus potential lawsuits, by “successfully” removing Arnold from office.

“It is our contention that had you and your office assisted us, this would have easily cost us half this much. I also know that the WHO law firm was generous on the billing and could have easily (charged) twice this amount,” Liggett’s letter states.

Arnold pleaded guilty in January 2017 to federal corruption charges he profited from the illicit sales of e-cigarettes to county jail inmates. He is in the midst of a 50-month prison sentence, and his former chief administrative deputy, Joe Russell, is set to begin a 15-month prison sentence.

Reached for comment, Jones declined to directly address Liggett’s request for to help pay legal fees. But it appears his office won’t be helping pay any of the fees.

“I counseled Mr. Liggett to hold off on filing the ouster for fear it might cause harm to the federal prosecution,” Jones said. “He ignored my advice.”

The district attorney general said he also told Liggett if the charges against Arnold stuck there would be no need for an ouster lawsuit. In addition, Jones said his office helped with filing for subpoenas and other legal work regarding the ouster.

How it started

An ouster lawsuit against a public official can be done either through the district attorney general’s office, through the county attorney or by a group of citizens. The district attorney’s office is required to help in a citizen group’s filing, but there is no requirement in state law for the DA’s office to pay legal fees in ouster complaints. In fact, the code does not address payment of legal fees in these instances.

The group filed its ouster lawsuit in October 2016, the day federal Magistrate Judge Alistair Newbern revoked Arnold’s $250,000 non-secured bond after finding probable cause he committed domestic assault against his wife during a drunken and drugged bout on Labor Day and tampered with a witness. Arnold was held in a Kentucky jail until he pleaded guilty to the federal charges and was transferred to a federal prison.

Chancellor Young ordered Arnold’s suspension from office until the ouster case was completed. But the matter was considered moot when Arnold stepped down from office and pleaded guilty.

In late December 2016, Jones said he received a written request from Michelle Blaylock-Howser, the attorney for the group that filed the ouster, and would help with issuing subpoenas and coordinating with federal authorities. Blaylock-Howser had told him she wanted to continue to “guide and argue the ouster,” according to Jones’ statement from a year ago.

Jones said at the time he would not become an official party to the lawsuit, nor would he try to take over the case, since Blaylock-Howser filed the complaint initially. Blaylock-Howser confirmed a year ago Jones agreed “to enter an appearance” to help the citizens group seeking Arnold’s ouster.

“We appreciate his assistance which will certainly streamline the discovery process as this case proceeds to trial,” Blaylock-Howser said, referring to the gathering of evidence.

However, she had told the Davidson County chancellor the DA’s Office initially refused to help. Liggett’s statement also says his group and the law firm initially were refused assistance by Jones.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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