This story was updated June 5, 2018, at 11:07 p.m. with more information.
Tim Boyd's criminal extortion case could go to trial this fall after a special judge on Tuesday declined the county commissioner's motion to dismiss.
Judge Andrew Freiberg, of Bradley County, Tennessee, said there's a dispute over whether Boyd and East Ridge Mayor Brent Lambert's phone conversations in February are protected political speech or extortion. Because of that, Freiberg said he shouldn't rule on the issue before prosecutors present their case.
"It's very common for opponents to have communications with each other as they either are [engaging in a political race] or [are] contemplating engaging in a political race," Freiberg said. "However, what may be said or the tenor of those statements, whether it's truly protected political speech, or whether it rises to extortion or coercion , is a fact that is in dispute. And, therefore, the court should not consider the motion to dismiss."
Freiberg set the next court date for Aug. 9 at 2 p.m., and he said Boyd can plead or set a trial date at that time. He is overseeing the case because Hamilton County's judges recused themselves, not wanting to create any appearance of bias.
Freiberg listened to about 45 minutes of arguments Tuesday from Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston and Boyd's defense attorney, Lee Davis, before making his ruling. Last month, Davis filed a motion to dismiss, saying Boyd's conversations fall under protected political speech. And Tuesday he expanded on that argument, saying Freiberg's ruling could have a huge impact on future elections.
"If you allow this case to go forward, every single political race, from county commission to U.S. Senate, invites the people involved to turn these things into criminal prosecutions," Davis said.
Had Boyd threatened Lambert's wife or children in February, or committed some underlying crime act, that would be extortion, Davis said. But instead, Davis said, Boyd referenced political information that was already publicly available in an East Ridge News Online story and campaign contribution reports.
"Mr. Boyd has the absolute right politically to publicize that information," Davis said. "So this conversation is about what to do with this information."
Pinkston said there's "an absolute dispute" on whether Boyd committed extortion, a Class D felony that carries two to four years upon conviction. According to Boyd's indictment, extortion involves coercing someone to gain an unlawful advantage or immunity.
Pinkston read a few examples from Boyd and Lambert's conversations, including one in which Boyd said he preferred not to release the information because it wouldn't look good for Lambert or his employer, the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum.
"Those examples go back to the factual dispute that [a jury of] his peers should resolve," Pinkston said to Freiberg, "and not by way of the motion that makes the court take up a general issue."
Lambert said he received a call on the evening of Feb. 15 from his employer's attorney, Allen McCallie, that Boyd planned to release some damaging information unless he dropped out of the District 8 race.
The information concerned $5,000 in political contributions, $3,000 of which came from local developers in 2017, about 12 days after the East Ridge City Council passed a resolution authorizing more than $4 million in bonds for a development project related to Interstate 75's Exit 1. At the time, Lambert hadn't had a campaign going since 2014.
East Ridge is now considering hiring an outside lawyer to evaluate a citizen's recent complaint that Lambert violated a 2006 city ethics ordinance that forbids public officials from accepting contributions that appear to reward them for "a past action."
When he called Boyd the next morning on Feb. 16, Lambert said he recorded their conversation so he would have a witness. Then he went to Pinkston with his complaint and recorded two more phone calls he made to Boyd.
Pinkston asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to look into possible extortion, according to documents his office provided to the Times Free Press. Prosecutors then secured an indictment against Boyd in early April, the day before early voting started in their May 1 Republican primary. Boyd defeated Lambert in that election, capturing about 65 percent of the vote.
Since that time, Boyd has called the indictment a political setup, posted a $2,500 bond and pleaded not guilty.
Elsewhere in the case, defense attorney Bill Speek said Lambert retained him to respond to a subpoena from Boyd's lawyer calling for the mayor's bank statements, emails and phone calls. The subpoena also requested information related to Lambert's 2017 campaign contributions and the 2006 ordinance.
Aside from medical and marital information, as well as privileged communication between attorneys and their clients, Speek said Lambert "fully complied" with the subpoena. In court, Davis said he would begin going through the information, which Speek said he hopes to place under seal.
"As I understand, that [ethics] complaint is being filed by somebody who is a strong and loyal supporter of Mr. Boyd," Speek said. "And so it's not surprising. But the information that we've provided should exonerate Mr. Lambert of any claim of any impropriety."
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.