By Heather Mullinix
"I am not walking away with my tail between my legs," said Crossville City Councilman Pete Souza Tuesday night as he discussed the Cumberland County Grand Jury report that found no evidence of any crime committed by city of Crossville officials in three real estate transactions.
Souza said he has already filed a fraud complaint with the Tennessee Comptroller's office and is seeking an investigation by the U.S. Attorney. And while several in the audience at the meeting expressed support for Souza to continue what he termed a "campaign pledge" to look into irregularities in purchase of properties, others called on the council to return its focus to growing the city.
"We've got to have growth," said David Simcox, Cumberland County property assessor and property owner in Crossville, saying negative comments on the city's leadership was hurting growth opportunities for the community.
"How much longer are we going to put up with your garbage and wasting people's time?" Simcox asked. "Either do it or go on. I'm tired of it. The people are tired of it. The taxpayers are tired of it."
Resident refutes previous claim
Souza was also taken to task by one resident who was the subject of one of Souza's accusations of a conflict of interest among council members.
Local businessman Bruce Wyatt said he does not own any property along the third section of the proposed Northwest Connector, noting he had sold his interest in Cotton Patch Properties more than 20 years ago and had sold the Plateau Travel Plaza in 2005.
"Today, I own nothing on the Northwest Connector," Wyatt said. "I wish I did, because that will be the next growth area of Crossville."
Wyatt reminded council members of the weight their words and actions have, and the attention paid to them.
"With that attention and respect comes a certain responsibility to make sure that you get your facts straight when you're making accusations involving private citizens," he said.
Wyatt said he supported the Northwest Connector, and believed he and Souza had a difference of opinion on the matter.
"I respect that. You're entitled to your opinion," Wyatt said. "But you're not entitled to your own facts."
Souza apologized to Wyatt, stating his information was incorrect.
"My point was never directed to you. My comment was directed to conflicts of interest that may exist for those who vote," Souza said.
"You have a podium from which you speak that's powerful," Wyatt said. "I have no podium, except here tonight."
Souza said he was not satisfied with the investigation conducted by District Attorney Randy York and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. That investigation looked into three real estate transactions by the city of Crossville — the purchase of property adjoining the airport, the purchase of the new city hall facility and the purchase of property at Interchange Park located north of I-40 off Hwy. 127 N. The grand jury reviewed 115 pages of city of Crossville documents, 927 additional documents Souza provided, 22 investigative reports and 21 exhibits from the TBI, and listened to testimony from TBI Special Agent Billy Miller and Souza before issuing its report.
"I have no fault with the grand jury's findings. The grand jury is correct. There was insufficient evidence to prove there was a criminal act," Souza said. "But what's not written in there, ladies and gentlemen, is that's not what I presented to the district attorney."
In a statement, York said he took steps to ensure an investigation free from criticism of partisanship or influence. That included requesting a TBI agent who was not from Cumberland County and a promise to take the results of the investigation, regardless of the results, to the grand jury for review by 12 citizens. Each page delivered to the office was also consecutively numbered, and a disk of all documents submitted was delivered to the Crossville city manager so that those documents would be available to the general public.
York also said he offered to allow another district attorney to review the submitted documents and present the matter to the grand jury. He stated Souza declined the offer. Souza said he remembers that conversation differently, with York advising him options for proceeding with the investigation included asking the comptroller to investigate, turning the matter over to another DA, or proceeding with York as the DA.
"I told him this needed to go to the comptroller. I didn't care who presented it, but it should go to the comptroller first because it had to do with accounting, controlling and appropriation and the method in which the land was appropriated and contracts," Souza said. "It was never done."
Souza said he had presented six cases, not three.
"My argument is that there is a conspiracy to defraud taxpayers of Crossville, a trend," Souza said.
Souza said he presented his case to the grand jury for an hour and a half, but added the panel did not have time to review the files presented, stating it would take eight hours to read the files he submitted. He said he had presented about 1,400 pages of documents. He also said he had not provided the DA with all of his files, which he said he compiled himself at no cost to the taxpayers.
"My files were not the evidence. My files were the probable cause. Not one single witness, not one, that I put in there to corroborate what I alleged was ever interviewed," Souza said. "If you want to call that a thorough investigation, I say no. There were no money trails because where I point out where a specific money trail was, the DA refused to subpoena that money trail.
"The gist of the whole thing is three things: my files, witnesses and subpoenaing where that money got astray, and it never happened."
Seeking new investigations
Souza said he had been asked by the TBI not to continue submitting information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation while the TBI was conducting its investigation. Souza said he complied with the request, but then said the investigation sat idle for 14 months.
He questioned the timing of the grand jury report, noting it came near the time when the council was considering a change in the downtown infrastructure and revitalization project (see Tuesday's Chronicle).
"Maybe some people think I should just stop this, but I'll tell you something, I don't know how to quit. I've never quit in my life," Souza said. "And if anybody thinks I was foolish enough to give the DA everything I had, they're mistaken. I put enough out there for him to act, and he failed to act. He just processed the paper...There was not a thorough investigation. There was a whitewash."
Souza said petitions were circulating to ask the governor to investigate the city and that he had contacted the Comptroller of the Treasury as well as the U.S. Attorney's office regarding an investigation.
Souza said, "If they come back and they say there's nothing there, then I'd stand humbled. And I tell you what, I'd resign."