Shelby County alters how it selects an ethics officer, and what complaints they can act on

How the ethics officer of Shelby County Government is selected will change after a vote by commissioners Monday.

Now, the officer will be nominated by the county mayor with a concurrent resolution by the County Commission. And, that ethics officer will no longer be able to act on anonymous complaints. Instead, they'll be able to act only those that are “in writing and signed under oath by the person making the complaint.”

The ethics officer will also provide legal advice and direction to the county ethics commission and review complaints prior to them being heard by the ethics commission.

The ordinance underwent substantial changes Monday, shortly before its third reading, with Attorney Allan Wade playing a major role in writing the changes.

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Wade, longtime attorney for the City of Memphis, said he was asked by several members of the commission and by County Attorney Marlinee Iverson to advise on the ordinance, likely because of his more than 30 years of experience with municipal law.

Wade also represents Commissioner Edmund Ford Jr. Previously, Wade was involved in pushing back on allegations, reported first by The Commercial Appeal, that Ford had violated the county charter and ethics code when he ushered through a $450,000 grant to the nonprofit Junior Achievement of Memphis and the Mid-South Inc. and also sold them computers, a business interest he did not disclose.

As of Monday, a criminal investigation into Ford by the District Attorney General's Office for the 17th Judicial District of Tennessee was ongoing. The 17th Judicial District began to investigate Ford after Amy Weirich, former Shelby County District Attorney General, recused herself from the investigation.

Ford took a moment of personal privilege as the meeting ended, saying “this commission was able to do something the prior commission did not have the political courage to do themselves.”

He made derogatory remarks about Daily Memphian reporter Bill Dries, Commercial Appeal reporter Katherine Burgess and columnist Otis Sanford, also saying “the ethics office in its current form has been used to weaponize against political adversaries.”

“It’s also blatantly obvious that the County Attorney’s Office does not have the capacity to give the commission any independent advice because of the undue influence from the office (Mayor Lee Harris’ administration) in which they are housed,” Ford said.

Throughout two breaks in public discussion about the ordinance changes, Wade held private discussions separately with Commissioner Henri Brooks, the ordinance's sponsor, Iverson and commission staff.

“I’m not taking that out,” Wade said at one point in a hushed conversation with Iverson.

The version ultimately approved ended up including new language, including that the new ethics officer “shall report to the Shelby County Attorney by contract or as part of his or her employment for the sole purpose of confirming compliance with state laws regarding a lawyer’s licensure status, payment of dues, adherence to continuing legal requirement, and status with the state Board of Professional Responsibility.”

That amendment was handwritten onto the final version of the resolution by Wade. Commissioners voted to suspend their rules Monday night, allowing the ordinance to be approved on its third reading despite having been altered in the same meeting.

Previously, commissioners have sat through three closed-door executive sessions with attorneys to discuss the ordinance.

According to Commissioner Mick Wright, who attended the executive session preceding commission Monday, there were issues of compliance with state and local law with the original ordinance, and commissioners had questions about whether the ordinance was set up how they want and in accordance with the Shelby County Charter.

Essentially, only employees of certain offices (such as the county attorney’s office) are authorized by charter to give legal advice, and this employee would not be under one of those offices as the ordinance was originally drafted.

The amendments by Wade appear to clear up that conflict.

“Those amendments are basically what would be included in an independent attorney contract with an ethics officer,” Wade told commissioners.

The vote — supported by all 10 commissioners present — also means the new ethics officer will be an independent officer of the three branches of county government, “to eliminate any opportunity for direct control, direction or influence over the ethics officer’s duties by the County’s Legislative, Executive and/or Judicial Branches.”

Currently, the ethics officer is designated by the county attorney from his or her staff. That officer works with the ethics commission to issue opinions at the request of any county elected official or department head.

The ordinance making the change was proposed by Brooks, who first served on the commission for two terms starting in 2006 and was reelected in August of this year. She was also a state representative for 14 years.

The ordinance also now includes the language that, “No officer or employee of Shelby County government shall give orders or directions to the Chief Ethics Officer or to the Ethics Commission to take action against any official or employee of Shelby County government except by a complaint that is in writing and signed under oath by the person making the complaint, and setting forth in reasonable detail the facts upon which the complaint is based. The chief ethics officer shall also provide legal advice and direction to the county ethics commission, and shall review all ethics complaints prior to those complaints being heard by the county ethics commission.”

It was the chief ethics officer in the county attorney’s office, which at the time was led by Marcy Ingram, who, in 2014, investigated Brooks’ residency, ultimately determining she did not live where she claimed.

Brooks ended up entering an Alford plea - meaning she acknowledged there was enough evidence to convict her without admitting guilt - to charges that she falsified election documents, since she had put the address on election documents in a run for Juvenile Court Clerk, but later had the case expunged.

The current ethics officer is Michael Joiner. Before him, it was Felisa Cox. If a conflict impacts the Shelby County Attorney’s Office, it engages outside counsel.

From 2020-2021, the county attorney’s office contracted outside counsel Brian Faughnan to investigate whether Ford Jr. violated county charter when he ushered a $450,000 grant to a nonprofit that also purchased computers from his business.

Katherine Burgess covers county government and religion. She can be reached at or followed on Twitter @kathsburgess.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Shelby County alters how it selects an ethics officer