Jack McElroy: Not-so-special prosecutor delivered a whitewashing

By Jack McElroy Knoxville News Sentinel
Michael Dunavant is supposed to be a tough prosecutor. He'll chair the Public Safety Coalition next year. That's the group of DAs, sheriffs and police chiefs who lobby the legislature for stricter laws, tougher sentences and more crime-fighting resources.

Dunavant's pet peeve is pretrial diversion, which lets first-time law-breakers avoid trial and have their records expunged if they stay out of trouble. He wants such leniency abolished.

"The thugs aren't afraid of us anymore, and that is one of the reasons why," he told the Chattanooga Times-Free Press.

But now it seems that politicians who break the law don't have to be afraid of Dunavant, either, and pretrial diversion has nothing to do with it.

The district attorney general from West Tennessee was the special prosecutor investigating the faking of valuations of Rarity properties in Loudon County.

Doyle Arp, assessor and later county mayor, had quietly slashed about $11 million off the appraised values of some 200 parcels owned or controlled by Rarity developer Mike Ross, cutting his tax bill by about $150,000. At the same time, Ross employee Traci Riedl changed numbers on deeds to make it look like lots were selling for more than they actually were.

Dunavant was called in because the DA for Loudon County had a conflict of interest. Too bad a more vigorous prosecutor could not have been found.

In a letter last week to the TBI agent in charge of the investigation, Dunavant told why he had decided to let the matter slide.

First he made a point of saying how much he liked the upscale Rarity development, "a stunningly beautiful and impressive community which is a true asset to Loudon County."

Then he offered excuses for Riedl's jiggering of the deed affidavits: "It appears that Riedl's corrected amounts more accurately reflected the higher market value than actual consideration paid for the property." He left hanging, though, why property would be worth more than what willing buyers and sellers had agreed upon.

Finally, he evaluated the charges against Arp, finding, "There is no evidence to suggest that Arp in any way benefitted financially from such alleged favoritism."

Although - oops - Ross did hire Arp's son to work for him while dad was shaving Rarity's taxes. This, said Dunavant, was "perhaps coincidental."

Besides, he said, the statute of limitation on Arp had already run out unless he had tried to conceal his misdeeds.

But wait - Arp did have all the appraisal cards destroyed after the valuations on them were changed. Still, Dunavant decided that since the phonied values were put in the county computer, Arp had not tried to hide what he had done.

And what did Arp have to say for himself? Dunavant doesn't know. When he traveled to Loudon County to interview officials, the mayor was "unavailable," so the prosecutor never questioned the suspect.

To be fair, Dunavant probably did have concerns about his ability to successfully prosecute Arp, Ross and Riedl. But in a public corruption case such as this - much more so than in any minor pretrial diversion case - a prosecutor should err on the side of taking the issue to trial.

Let a jury of Loudon County citizens decide if such shenanigans were innocent or not.

After all, they're the ones who lost $150,000.

Jack McElroy is editor of the News Sentinel. He may be reached at 865-342-6300, at editor@knews.com or through his blog, The Upfront Page, at http://blogs.knoxnews.com.