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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Exclusive Interview with J. R. Blankenship--”I did not intend to break the law.” From Council meetings to Court to Yard Signs--the saga continues

The saga of J. R. Blankenship, where it stands now, 
and how it is sparking further discord in the city council.

What started, according to J. R. Blankenship, as a way “to inform elected officials of something they should be concerned about” has turned into a dispute that stretches across multiple courts, numerous accusations and numerous signs.

This reporter had an exclusive interview with Mr. Blankenship, has spoken to Crossville Police Chief Rod Shoap and sat in on Crossville municipal court held June 14 where motions from Blankenship concerning his citation and fine were heard.

The man, J. R. Blankenship, who gives his address as 279 Mockingbird Drive first came onto the public radar when he spoke at the end of the March 10 regular city council meeting with a very brief statement claiming he had evidence of council members who were “in breach of their fiduciary duty.” He continued that he had “polled 25 law professors” and added that he would make the information public after he heard back from them.

J. R. Blankenship's comments at March 10 council meeting

Distributing unsigned material

The next time Mr. Blankenship's name came up was a day or so after the council meeting when some fliers (and no one seems to be able to determine exactly how many) were reportedly found posted on downtown businesses offering “a reward” of up to $500 for photos of any city elected or appointed official doing something wrong. The flier promised anonymity for the informant and that the evidence would be published. The flier was signed “Sam at the Daily Bull” with a phone number. According to Blankenship, he is known to some people as Sam.

The "unsigned flier"

The first reports of the fliers are believed to have come from city councilman Jesse Kerley who reportedly said he'd had several complaints about the fliers from downtown businesses. As the investigation moved forward, there were more emails flying between councilman Kerley, former city manager David Rutherford, city attorney Will Ridley and police chief Rod Shoap.

Emails from Mr. Kerley went to the city attorney and city manager. The city manager was asked to forward Kerley's email to the police chief suggesting the perpetrator should be charged with littering. Kerley's email to Ridley asked if someone distributing fliers needed a permit. Ridley responded that it appeared the action could be in violation of two city ordinances and Ridley said he had informed the police of his findings.

According to Police Chief Rod Shoap, Mr. Blankenship was quickly developed as a suspect and a copy of the ordinances was delivered to the house on Mockingbird Drive. Shoap said that Blankenship called the department and offered to turn himself in.

In an exclusive interview between this reporter and Blankenship, he said he had researched state and federal law before distributing the fliers but said he had not considered local ordinances. Said Blankenship, “I had no intention to break the law.”

Blankenship said that emails between Shoap and Rutherford indicated to him that Shoap felt there should not be prosecution. An email from Shoap to Rutherford said, “the culprit has confessed-he understands what he did was wrong and will be willing accept the cite, however, if we just warn him I am hoping he does not make a return visit.” Blankenship concluded that he would not have been cited except for direction by councilman Kerley.

We spoke with Chief Shoap and he said Blankenship's conclusion was inaccurate. According to Shoap, a council member can not direct his action.  Chief  Shoap stated that he would not allow that to happen. Shoap stressed that Blankenship had always been respectful to him and his officers but he said that he had received a call from a downtown business manager about the flier. Shoap described the complainant as “put out” telling the chief that he did not allow anyone to put fliers in his windows. Shoap said because of that complaint, on March 24, 2016 his department issued a single citation, not 30 citations as has been reported elsewhere.

Shoap commented on the situation, “I do want him (Blankenship) treated fairly.”

Shoap told this reporter that he only saw one flier and he said four were actually documented by his department. Shoap also said that Blankenship himself did not know how many fliers had been distributed. Shoap told us that he wanted to be very cautious on the action taken as he felt he needed to consider how charges might affect other fliers distributed for things such as fundraisers that kids might put out.

Shoap added that up to this point he and his officers had spent some 40 hours on the matter of the fliers, time he felt could have been better spent protecting the public.

Blankenship stated in our interview that he didn't know how many fliers had been put out but he had 50 of the fliers printed and he still had a stack of them at his house.

From Council to Court to yard signs

Blankenship's anger is generally directed at councilman Kerley who he feels has pushed the prosecution of him through his position on the council and friends that, according to Blankenship, include city judge Ivy Gardner. Blankenship's feelings come through in the yard signs at the Mockingbird Drive house and the signs he has brought to city council meetings in the back of a pickup truck. In our interview he described Kerley's actions in the flier case as “official misconduct and oppression.” His comments mirror comments in a memo from councilman Pete Souza to city attorney Will Ridley dated June 1, 2016 that questions the actions taken in the case against Mr. Blankenship and Mr. Kerley's involvement.

Two page memo to city attorney Will Ridley outlining Pete Souza's concerns about Kerley's actions

It appears that some of the animosity currently between Councilman Kerley and Councilman Souza stem from this issue as well with Kerley accusing Souza of assisting Blankenship with the plywood signs he put up in his yard on Mockingbird Drive. Souza has also sent a letter to the Tennessee Open Records office after Blankenship filed several open records requests and received no information. Form letter responses indicate there are “No such records exist.”

Letter from councilman Pete Souza to State Open Records office

Blankenship faced his citation on the fliers May 10 in Crossville city court before city judge Ivy Gardner. After hearing about the case, Gardner found Blankenship guilty of 30 counts of “distributing unsigned material” from a single citation and fined the maximum $50 fine on each count totaling $1500. Blankenship also has questioned the ordinance under which he was cited and it appears that no one except Mr. Blankenship has ever been charged with the offense since the ordinance has been on the city books since the 1960's.

As this situation has further played out, city judge Ivy Gardner has filed a request for a restraining order against Blankenship claiming in a court filing that he “has engaged in a pattern of conduct to harass and unnecessarily alarm” Ms. Gardner. The action was filed for Ms. Garner by attorney Kevin Bryant.

Complaint against Blankenship (left) filed by city judge Ivy Gardner and temporary restraining order pending the next court date of July 7, 2016

Prior to the initial hearing on the matter, a temporary restraining order was issued by General Sessions Judge Larry Warner. At the court appearance, a continuance was granted for Blankenship to hire an attorney to defend him. The next court date on the mater is July 7 at 1 PM.

It appears that the restraining order request comes from the sign in Blankenship's yard on Mockingbird Drive that says, “Twerley Trash=Quid Pro Quo 107 143 68” The numbers correspond to house numbers of property owned by councilman Jesse Kerley, his brother Joseph Kerley and a house owned by Joe B. Gardner, Jr.

279 Mockingbird Drive with yard signs including one some perceive as a threat

When asked about the numbers on his sign, Mr. Blankenship said it was a joke and they were the combination to his safe. He said he was willing to let anyone contact the man who keeps his safe. Crossville Police Chief Rod Shoap said that a safe combination was also what Blankenship told him the numbers represented.

Blankenship's Latest Court Appearance

Even though he is under a temporary restraining order, J. R. Blankenship appeared before Crossville city judge Ivy Gardner in Crossville city court on June 14 concerning motions he made following his guilty finding on distributing unsigned material and fined $1500. Blankenship filed a motion for discovery seeking documents, records and more related to his case. In addition Blankenship is seeking written “finding of facts” and “conclusion of law” for his case related to Judge Gardner's decision on her refusal to recuse herself, dismissal of Blankenship's counter claim and the fine imposed.

Gardner told Blankenship that her court was a municipal court and was not a court of record meaning that civil procedures do not apply and she was not required to provide the information he was requesting. Stated Gardner, “If a higher court tells me to do so I will do it gladly.” She said that she currently has no jurisdiction on the case as it was on appeal to a higher court.

Blankenship also asked that Gardner recuse her self from the case saying she “bore false witness against me.”

The city court fine has been appealed to circuit court and is scheduled be heard by Judge Jonathan Young on August 29, 2016.

Blankenship Appeal Notice to Circuit Court

Vandalism of Blankenship's Yard signs

Blankenship shared an image from the infrared camera in his yard that shows a person wearing a hoodie, shorts and tennis shoes wielding what Mr. Blankenship says is a sledge hammer that was used to knock down the signs that were nailed to a tree. While the face is unclear, Blankenship would like to know who the person is that damaged his property

Unidentified vandal in Blankenship's yard destroying signs 

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