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Taxpayers looking to take on Roane County Property Assessor Teresa Kirkham over appraisals might have to deal with the top legal adviser to one of the state’s constitutional officers.
Robert Lee is general counsel to Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson.
State law allows Lee to intervene in any case before the State Board of Equalization. He’s joined the side of Kirkham’s office in some high-profile appeals.
One involved Birmingham, Ala., lawyer Jeff Friedman. He gave the opening and closing statements for the plaintiffs in last year’s TVA ash spill trial.
Some of Friedman’s clients contested their property values following the controversial 2010 Roane County reappraisal.
Lee intervened in that case.
Attorney James “Buddy” Scott, who served as the judge in two notable murder trials, represents business partners Jerry Duncan and Steve Kirkham, the ex-husband of Teresa Kirkham.
During a meeting in April 2011, Scott questioned the validity of his clients’ property values because of bad blood from the Kirkhams’ divorce. Lee filed a petition to intervene less than two weeks later.
He told Scott during a June 7 meeting that he wants to see the insurance values and any lease agreements on the properties that Duncan and Steve Kirkham are appealing.
No hidden agenda
One might think Lee is too busy to get involved in Roane County property value disputes after reading his job description.
“The General Counsel is the chief legal officer to the Comptroller of the Treasury and coordinates the legal affairs of the comptroller’s office,” the job description states. “The General Counsel’s office provides legal guidance to all the divisions of the comptroller’s office, serves as liaison with the Office of the Attorney General and Reporter and provides legal representation in judicial and administrative litigation. In addition, the Office of General Counsel is responsible for the development, monitoring and interpretation of legislation.”
Blake Fontenay, the communications director for the comptroller’s office, said Lee will look at an appeal to determine if he needs to intervene.
“Sometimes we get requests from the local assessors to assist them,” Fontenay said. “We try to determine if the appeal is something of statewide importance that might set a precedent.”
Fontenay had a similar response when asked if Lee was trying to protect Teresa Kirkham.
“The comptroller’s office gets involved when we feel a bad precedent could be set or a case is very complicated,” he said. “There’s no hidden agenda here.”
Lee’s legal opinion was also instrumental in an investigation that cleared Teresa Kirkham of any wrongdoing.
In 2010 she requested raises for the five-member Roane County Board of Equalization when they were hearing appeals from property owners.
County Attorney Tom McFarland said that was inappropriate and informed her of that in a letter.
“When you advocate, in writing, for a pay increase for the very board that hears individual appeals resulting from your reappraisal, at the very least it represents an appearance of impropriety,” McFarland wrote.
District Attorney General Russell Johnson investigated the matter and contacted Lee as part of his review.
“In Lee’s legal opinion, Kirkham had not committed ‘official misconduct,’ nor had she violated any rule or regulation of the Division of Property Assessment,” Johnson wrote about the investigation. “He did not see any ethical violation and felt that Kirkham acted properly in making the request.”
McFarland said the raise request didn’t “pass the smell test.” He also accused Lee of trying to protect Teresa Kirkham.
“McFarland feels that Bobby Lee at the comptroller’s office feels obligated to protect Kirkham as a property assessor, so that her appraisals will not be questioned or appealed further,” Johnson wrote about the investigation.
Johnson concluded Teresa Kirkham didn’t do anything wrong, criminally or ethically, by requesting the raises. McFarland didn’t waver on his stance, however.
“Just because there’s no crime does not mean that there’s no problem,” he said.