By Jack McElroy
Sunday, August 14, 2011
Like other papers, the News Sentinel tries to be sensitive in covering suicides. As a rule, we consider them to be personal matters, not newsworthy.
But there are exceptions, such as when a public figure is involved.
That was the case in the death of Chuck Jenkins, found in his basement earlier this month at age 51.
Jenkins was well known in Loudon County, where he had been property tax assessor since 2006. Years earlier, he'd been on the County Commission for two terms, too, and he'd worked in public affairs for the Republican National Committee and for the administration of Bush I.
What may not be well known, though, is the intense pressure public service put on Jenkins.
It started soon after he assumed the assessor's office and a property owner named Frank Renkel came to him with a disturbing complaint. Renkel had bought a lot in Rarity Bay for $500,000, and in 2005 its valuation had been raised to $900,000.
That was a big jump. But what really bothered Renkel was the fact that similar lots in the luxury community owned by the developer, Mike Ross, were valued at $500,000.
Jenkins dutifully dug into the matter and realized that his predecessor, Doyle Arp, had slashed $11 million in value off some 200 lots that Ross still held in Rarity developments. Probing further, Jenkins discovered that Arp had ordered records of the changes destroyed, too.
Armed with these disclosures, Jenkins went to the local district attorney general, who, citing conflicts of interest, passed the buck to a special prosecutor, Mike Dunavant of McNairy County. Late last year, Dunavant opted not to prosecute, saying there was no evidence that Arp had gotten any payback for helping Ross, even though Ross had hired Arp's son while dad was trimming the developer's taxes.
Reporter Hugh Willett, who wrote many stories about the Arp-Ross shenanigans for the News Sentinel, relied on Jenkins as a source in his reporting. But whistle-blowing turned Jenkins into a pariah in some GOP circles in Loudon County, where Arp had become mayor.
"He stuck his neck out and went on the record in the face of tremendous political pressure from supporters of Arp and other powerful people in the county," said Willett. "While I was interviewing him he often made reference to the notion that the only reason he was doing this was because he knew what happened was wrong and he didn't want to be a part of covering it up. He knew that he was making a lot of powerful enemies in Loudon County."
More recently, Jenkins had been battling Tate & Lyle and Kimberly-Clark, two of Loudon County's largest businesses, over their assessments. The companies recently appealed to the state equalization board, triggering a yearlong process.
Suicides have no simple explanations or causes, and no one can tell what demons haunted Jenkins in his final hours. But the burden of being an honest and dedicated public official must have taken a toll.
"It really hurt Chuck when the special prosecutor found that there was nothing to prosecute in the Arp case," Willett remembered. "He laughed and told me, 'No good deed goes unpunished.' "
Which is very sad.