Much as I love a good yarn, I’m going to try to make this as simple as possible: Knox County Trustee Ed Shouse needs to put Justin Biggs on unpaid leave until election season is over.
Biggs is a county commissioner as well as an employee in the trustee’s office and is running to succeed Shouse, who is coming to the end of the two terms allowed him under term limits. Biggs draws an annual salary of $57,182 as a tax collector/field auditor/manager. Commissioners make $24,330.80 per year plus a $3,900 annual travel allowance. The trustee’s annual salary is $142,448.80.
Shouse served multiple terms on city council and county commission before he was elected trustee in 2014 and is well-respected. He has clearly taken pains to clean up the tarnished reputation of that office as he winds up his tenure on September 1. He “inherited” Biggs, who was initially hired as a delinquent tax collector in 2005 by former trustee Mike Lowe when Biggs was just a couple of years out of high school. Biggs lists no higher education nor significant professional accomplishments.
Lowe was forced out of office a year after he hired Biggs, and served time in county jail after pleading guilty to felony theft in a case that introduced the term “ghost employee” into the courthouse vernacular. He’s had problems paying his court-ordered restitution.
Justin Biggs, who appears to eat, drink and sleep politics 24/7, has been helped considerably by being the son of Eddie Biggs, a former assistant chief with the Knoxville Police Department who later served as chief deputy in the Knox County Sheriff’s Office under Jimmy “J.J.” Jones. The younger Biggs lost his job for a while after Lowe’s departure, but made a comeback when John Duncan III was elected in 2010.
Duncan, son of former U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan, soon ran into legal trouble and was forced out of office under the terms of a plea agreement that allowed his record to be expunged after a year of probation.
Justin Biggs at work
Shouse, by contrast, has run a scandal-free office except for a computer glitch that caused county tax bills to go out late this past year. I personally never heard a living soul say they wished that tax bill would hurry up and come.
Justin Biggs’ on-the-job conduct, however, has been a matter of concern for his colleagues for some time. A former co-worker told me that Biggs’ flippant attitude toward the job, which he referred to as “trusteeing,” and his worshipful attitude toward Mike Lowe always made his colleagues cringe.
“He thought Mike Lowe hung the moon.”
That, obviously, was not interpreted as a good sign, but is not sufficient reason for Shouse to put him on leave.
But this is:
On February 17, the last day candidates could turn in a qualifying petition to run for office, Dave “Caz” Cazalet, a Democrat who is running for trustee, was headed into the old Courthouse. He had a few minutes to get to the Election Commission office so he could file his papers before the noon deadline, and was accompanied by Matt Shears, chair of the Knox County Democratic Party. They noticed Justin Biggs walking out of the Old Courthouse as they entered, but didn’t think much of it until Biggs returned a little later, came to the Election Commission, sought Cazalet out and introduced himself.
Not a federal offense, or even a real big deal in and of itself, except that Biggs is a county employee. Is swanning around the courthouse complex watching for potential opponents during working hours part of his job description? And since he is already an elected officeholder, at what point does this behavior become intimidation?
But what really bothered me about this incident was that it reminded me of something far more serious.
Years ago, not long after Duncan took office, I started hearing multiple complaints from people in the courthouse that Biggs was attempting to intimidate employees of the Criminal Court Clerk’s office. The incumbent clerk, Joy McCroskey, had suffered health problems and had gotten into political trouble by missing a lot of work.
The courthouse was crawling with wannabes who coveted her six-figure salary. One of them was Duncan’s young employee Justin Biggs, who took to spending his mornings sitting on the balcony overlooking the clerk’s office, staring down at the employees who were working the front desk.
This is a busy, high-stress spot (nobody is ever happy to be appearing in criminal court) and having some guy giving county employees the hairy eyeball from the balcony above added to the discomfort and generated multiple complaints. It quickly became the talk of the courthouse.
I started checking out the complaints but ended up not writing about them when Mike Hammond made the whole thing moot by announcing his intention to run for clerk, thus foreclosing Biggs’ ambitions.
But I remembered it instantly when Biggs called me at the crack of dawn the day after he’d won the Republican primary for an at-large County Commission seat in April 2018. I’d been up late watching election returns and talking politics the night before, so I was not thrilled when this fast-talking guy woke me up, introduced himself and told me to feel free to call him any time.
He told me a lot of stuff, most of which I do not recall, although his contention that he’d supported Tom Spangler for sheriff didn’t pass the smell test, since Biggs’ daddy worked for incumbent Sheriff Jones, who supported Spangler’s opponent (and is running against him this year).
The more the Biggs boy talked (and he talked a lot) the less believable he got. So finally, I got aggravated enough to ask him what the heck had been in his mind back when he used to start his workday by standing on the balcony staring down county employees (mostly women) who were trying to do their jobs.
He said he was just having breakfast.
I can’t remember if I told him that most people have breakfast before they go to work. If I didn’t, I should have.
What I do remember is wondering what else the ambitious Mr. Biggs was doing on the taxpayers’ nickel?
So, when I heard that he’d been hanging around the election commission on filing day and “introducing” himself to a potential opponent, I called his boss and asked if he was going to require Biggs to take a leave of absence rather than campaign on taxpayer time.
Shouse was a little stunned (who wouldn’t have been to be asked such a question?). I felt badly for blind-siding him. He answered in hypotheticals.
“That’s a hard one to think through. First, I’d hope he was on his lunch hour. Secondly, I’d ask him if it’s true and what happened?
“I’ve done my absolute best to make sure Justin, if he does commission work or campaign work, that he does it off trustee’s office time. If he’s in the building, he punches the time clock. If he’s not, he calls my chief of staff, and she punches him out.
“I’ll have to take this under consideration as we get closer to voting.”
Shouse said questions about Biggs’ courthouse political activities have come up before, and that Biggs has always assured him that he is following the rules. Maybe that’s true, but given Biggs’ track record and the history of this office – which Shouse has worked diligently to improve – it would be wise to require Biggs to take a temporary leave of absence to campaign on his own dime. It might also ease tensions in the office, where scary rumors are flying about Biggs’ personnel plans, should he be elected.
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.