Ethics hearing for Knox County commissioners set before Election Day

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Tensions ran high at a Knox County Ethics Committee meeting on Wednesday, with back and forth between committee members and defense counsel over whether there were grounds to delay a hearing for a six-month-old ethics complaint against two Knox County commissioners.

The ruling, in the end, had people on both sides of the matter leaving with less than they had hoped for.

A complaint filed in September by Bo Bennett claims that Knox County commissioners Charles Busler and Bob Thomas committed an ethics violation by participating in an August charity golf game without disclosing their involvement.

“There was some issue I take with how that was handled and the communication between the competing company and the commissioners that from a reasonable person’s stance seems unethical,” Bennett said.

The complaint states that not only did the commissioners play free of charge on the same team as Priority Ambulance, but they also received $500 gift vouchers, just weeks before voting on an ambulance contract.

Thomas, who is also running for Knox County mayor, said he has not had time to prepare to defend his reputation, because he has been busy campaigning.

“There are some people who are trying to make this a political shenanigan to make it affect the campaign,” Bob Thomas said. “Here’s the bottom line. I haven’t done anything wrong and I’m very comfortable about that.”

Neither Thomas nor Busler attended Wednesday’s ethics hearing about the matter, to the disappointment of some committee members.

“There are two public servants who are being brought up in front of the Ethics Committee. That’s a big deal,” committee member Gina Oster said. “I was less than impressed that Mr. Busler and Mr. Thomas weren’t here to take that seriously. This was a unanimous vote to vote today and hear this case.”

Counsel for Thomas did attend but were not ready to present their case and requested to push back the hearing.

“I’ve worked very hard to try to choose a day. I’ve got a very serious felony trial next week and I understand that I’m not special and I’m not saying I am, but those people I represent are,” Marcos Garza, defense counsel for Thomas, said.

Requests to postpone the hearing did not go over well with all committee members.

“You guys took this case knowing what was on the table,” Barbara Chandler, committee member, said. “Everybody in Knox County knows what’s been happening since September. Your presentation here today is a marketable tool for someone who wants an attorney. I’m not impressed.”

Still, Jonathan Cooper, chair of the ethics committee, granted a brief continuance to strike a balance between the two sides, but not the months-long delay that defense counsel were hoping for to prepare.

“I really never heard a very good reason for extending it that long, number one,” Cooper said. “Number two, this matter has been pending since September of last year. It has gone on for a long time. It has generated a lot of interest and I wanted to not delay it any longer than necessary. I tried to balance the interests of the parties.. of the commissioners that made the request.. against the interest of the public in having a final and timely hearing on the matter. I wanted to make sure that due process was afforded to the commissioners but at the same time, I did not want to unduly delay the resolution of a matter.”

The committee decided to delay the hearing until April 13, before the May 1 primary election day, but two days after the start of early voting.

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