Conflict of interest? Mayor alone will decide outcome of fired MCPD officer's appeal

Jeff Bobo • Jul 22, 2016 at 7:30 PM

MOUNT CARMEL — Mount Carmel City Attorney John Pevy said Friday that any potential conflict of interest Mayor Larry Frost would create by presiding over fire police officer Phillip Robinette’s appeal hearing will be addressed during that hearing.

Robinette’s appeal hearing was postponed Friday for the second time, and is now scheduled for Aug. 24, at 6 p.m.

Pevy told the Times-News Friday that Robinette’s attorney, Renfro “Buddy” Baird, had a scheduling conflict Friday afternoon when the hearing was scheduled and requested a postponement.

Baird also had a scheduling conflict on July 13, when Robinette’s appeal hearing was originally scheduled to occur.

Pevy confirmed for the Times-News Friday that Mayor Larry Frost alone will preside over Robinette’s hearing, and will make the decision whether or not to reinstate Robinette.

Robinette was fired by MCPD Chief Jeff Jackson on June 10.

Frost lost the power to hire, fire, promote or discipline city employees as a result of a Board of Mayor and Aldermen vote earlier this year.

Pevy noted, however, that according to city code, when an employee is fired by a department head, the mayor presides over the appeal hearing.

When Jackson was fired in December by Mayor Frost, the entire BMA presided over Jackson’s hearing, and he was voted back into his position.

In this case, however, there will be only one vote — that of Mayor Frost.

“If a dismissal is undertaken by a supervisor or department head, the appeal shall be heard by the mayor,” Pevy said, quoting city code. “Then, it goes on to say, if the city administrator is the one who dismisses the employee, the mayor hears that (appeal), also. But if the mayor is the one who is responsible for the dismissal, then the full board is tasked with hearing the appeal.”

It has been suggested that Frost presiding over Robinette’s appeal creates a possible conflict of interest because Frost has allegedly been named as a factor in one of the incidents which led to Robinette being fired.

Pevy said he couldn’t comment on any potential conflict of interest due to an ongoing criminal investigation, which is being conducted by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

“If there were some sort of direct conflict we would address it as such, and all of those matters will be sorted out at the hearing,” Pevy said.

Robinette’s termination stems from the findings of an internal investigation he conducted against another officer, as well as a report he filed following an investigation into an alleged trespassing incident at the Senior Center. The second incident allegedly involved Mayor Frost, as well.

A complaint was filed against Robinette in April, by Mount Carmel Senior Center Board of Directors member Janice Dean for allegedly filing a false report on her.

Last year, the BMA voted to oust the original independent senior center and install a new municipal center on the second floor of City Hall.

The original senior center was to be out of City Hall by June 30, 2015, but following the move, a piece of kitchen equipment was left behind.

Janice Dean, went to retrieve the equipment and reportedly received permission to do so from city employees who were working in the senior center at the time.

Mayor Frost allegedly directed Chief Jeff Jackson to file a police report against Dean for trespassing and theft, but Jackson refused

Robinette later filed a report accusing Janice Dean of criminal trespassing related to retrieving the kitchen equipment.

Robinette’s report allegedly contained witness statements against Janice Dean that the witnesses later reportedly claimed they hadn’t made.

That report against Janice Dean, which contained her personal information including Social Security number, was distributed to every Hawkins County commissioner prior to budget hearings that determined whether the original senior center or Frost’s municipal center would receive a $20,000 contribution from the county in its 2015-16 budget.

Janice Dean said she believes Frost was ultimately responsible for the “false report” and that it was intended to smear her and the original senior center in the eyes of county commissioners.

As for the other reason for his dismissal, Robinette was asked to conduct an internal investigation into a suspected DUI traffic stop performed by former Mount Carmel Police Department Officer David Dean in August 2015.

During that traffic stop, Dean allegedly told the motorist several times he couldn’t allow her to drive because she was too intoxicated and if she caused an accident he could be held liable.

After making that statement multiple times, however, Dean allegedly allowed the motorist to drive about a mile to a parking lot where someone could come pick up her and her passenger.

The motorist also wasn’t charged with any offenses.

Upon completing his internal investigation, Robinette cleared Dean of any wrongdoing.

Robinette reportedly stated in his findings that Dean didn’t believe the motorist’s blood alcohol rose to the level of intoxication at the time he allowed her to drive, but due to Dean’s training and experience, he felt her blood alcohol would rise within the next 30 minutes and she would be intoxicated.

Baird couldn’t be reached for comment Friday, but he previously told the Times-News, “My client completely denies all allegations made against him. We have not yet made a determination of witnesses or evidence that will be presented at this stage. Further, I will attempt to get more specific details concerning these false allegations at the appeal hearing.”                            

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