Former Davidson County Clerk Bill Covington, who left office in 2006, now owns and operates a small business called Nashville Weddings. On his website, Covington notes he is “Nashville’s most experienced wedding officiate … [who] has performed thousands of wedding ceremonies for couples from all over the world.”
Covington should consider hiring current County Clerk John Arriola, a guy who might just accept the offer.
Late one recent Friday afternoon, a time notorious for burying news, Mayor Karl Dean announced he was directing the Metro Division of Internal Audit to conduct an examination of Arriola’s Davidson County Clerk’s Office. It came after a series of WTVF-Channel 5 reports revealed damning allegations, including that the clerk had been charging a $40 fee to marry couples, even though it’s illegal for a public official to profit from his office. Arriola told reporter Phil Williams the payment is considered a “gratuity,” a stipulation that made it legal.
Although the Metro audit of the clerk’s office is to focus on its fiscal health, Arriola likely spurred Dean’s directive after the beleaguered clerk said he took the gratuity in cash only, failed to note whether couples had been given an option not to offer the gratuity, and said he kept no detailed records for the receipt of the cash. Williams reported Arriola could have generated as much as $36,000 any given year for his justice of the peace work.
Perhaps no one should be surprised. The clerk’s office offers a fascinating history of setbacks, scandals and leaders with the impressive ability to bring public embarrassment upon themselves.
Covington oversaw the Davidson County Clerk’s Office from 1986 to 2006, a 20-year run that saw the affable man garner respectable props overall while expanding his eye-catching list of friends — and foes. In 2002, Channel 5’s Williams exposed Covington for using Metro employees to make beer runs and work in his private business. Unfazed — and as upbeat as always — Covington put the matter behind him and won re-election before retiring in 2006.
“Covington was one of those officials who flew just a little too close to the flame,” said one veteran observer of the local political scene who asked to go unnamed. “He was very colorful.”
Covington’s predecessor was William “Bill” McPherson, an outspoken former Metro councilman who once owned a car wash on Thompson Lane and called folks “Sweet Baby.” McPherson served from 1980 to 1986 — a time when the city was transitioning from elected leaders who were almost exclusively male. He deftly maneuvered to place on the ballot various odd and unnecessary Metro Charter amendments (such as a mandatory drive-through window at the Howard Building), all of which voters rejected. In addition, some female employees in the office made sexual harassment claims against McPherson, adding to the clerk’s woes.
“All three have had their problems,” said Pat Nolan, a senior vice president with DVL Public Relations and Advertising and host of Channel 5’s Inside Politics. “They’ve all run into difficulties at various times of their careers, usually toward the latter part.”
Nolan noted that in the past 31 years, there have only been three clerks.
“Maybe being in office that long led them to take things for granted, maybe more so than they should have,” he said. “It’s not a good trend to have three in a row in the Davidson County Clerk’s Office [who have served while creating controversy].”
The clerk’s office is a state constitutional entity that requires its leaders to be elected. Similarly, the Tennessee Constitution requires every county to elect an assessor of property, district attorney, public defender, register of deeds, sheriff and trustee.
Because the clerks (including those of the courts) are elected, it is difficult to remove them other than via the ballot box. An exception is David Torrence, the disgraced Criminal Court clerk who resigned, effective Friday, after WSMV-Channel 4’s Jeremy Finley gumshoed his way into a damaging report. Hall revealed that Torrence worked only three days a week and used a government vehicle to make trips to purchase wine. Originally, Torrence was defiant, seemingly nonplussed by negative public outcry and determined to stay in office. But when District Attorney Torry Johnson said he would consider ouster proceedings, the embattled Torrence decided to walk away.
Whether Arriola will face a similar ouster scenario — or whether the audit will reveal activities that could lead to serious charges — is uncertain. But last week’s Channel 5 story revealing the clerk asked for a tricked-out Metro-provided gas-guzzling Chevy Tahoe instead of a more efficient vehicle didn’t help matters.
Arriola and Covington did not return phone calls seeking comment.
George Harrison Cate Jr., Metro’s first vice mayor (1963 to 1966) and a local attorney with an independent practice, said that because the clerk positions are constitutional offices, the clerks themselves are “semi-independent.”
“That’s part of the problem,” Cate said. “[Clerks] exist independently of the mayor and the Metro Council. Who supervises them? There is really nobody. They are their own bosses.”
Cate said at some point the matter could merit further study.
“It’s unfortunate, because we’ve had some people in that office who’ve done a credible job,” he added, citing both Covington and Arriola. “But the incidents of recent times have put a cloud on the position.”
The Davidson County Clerk’s Office is not alone in its run of embarrassments. For example, the Criminal Court Clerk’s Office has seen troubles beyond the Torrence matter. In the late 1970s, federal agents raided the office of Clerk Earl Hawkins, who was later indicted and charged with, among others, arranging for the dismissal of DUI citations, conspiracy and perjury. Found guilty of conspiracy, Hawkins resigned from office in exchange for the dropping of the remaining counts and so as to not face a re-trial.
John Lashlee, Hawkins’ replacement, was considered somewhat controversial, if anything because the Criminal Court judges didn’t care for his organizational approach.
In 2007, former Davidson County Juvenile Court clerk Vic Lineweaver was found to be at home in a bathrobe while he told Channel 4’s Finley, via phone, he was at the office working. Worse, a judge found him in contempt of court for failing to produce court documents, many of which were ultimately never found.
Metro Councilman Michael Craddock, who Torrence defeated in 2010 in the Criminal Court Clerk’s race, said unchecked ego might be the best explanation for the behavior various clerks have exhibited.
“I think now, more than ever, elected officials have forgotten that they’re supposed to be there to serve people as opposed to being served,” said Craddock, who is actively lobbying his council colleagues to choose him to replace Torrence (former Vice Mayor Howard Gentry Jr. is the other candidate to date). “There seems to be a mindset that once they are there, they can do what they want.”
Nolan said the clerks’ missteps over the past 30 years should be kept in perspective.
“Usually most of [the clerks] have gotten tripped up over their personal idiosyncrasies or doing things they shouldn’t do on a personal basis rather than their offices not doing well,” he said. “But, obviously, a couple have had more serious issues that do relate to the operations of their office.”
Political observers note that because clerks are not appointed by mayors, don’t make policy and often can avoid the public and media spotlight, they might be apt to act more independently than otherwise — thus risking their egos getting the best of them.
Nolan said clerks’ bad behavior shouldn’t be blamed wholly on the fact they don’t have to answer directly to a mayor.
“I don’t want to say that it’s because they are elected,” he said, “that they think they are bulletproof.”