Does Knox County court clerk Lillian Bean really run a powerful, behind-the-scenes political machine?

by Betty Bean

It is Sunday morning talk TV, and somebody asks the clerk of Knox County's General Sessions, Circuit, and Juvenile Courts about the Bean Machine.

The co-sweetheart of the 1998 March for Jesus banquet smiles.

"I'm so glad you asked that question," says Lillian Bean, who has served as clerk since the Knox County Quarterly Court appointed her 18 years ago to fill the position vacated by Wanda Teague (mother of County Commissioner Ralph Teague, a major Bean ally). She explains that the so-called Bean Machine is not an old-timey, patronage-fueled political apparatus that controls judges, county commissioners, and as many public jobs as it can gobble—but rather a little old mom-and-pop operation comprised of herself, her husband Richard, their three children, and her 95 employees, close friends all, who politic for her out of love, not fear of firing.

"That is the Bean Machine," she says, smiling some more beneath the trademark blond beehive hairdo that has survived virtually unchanged through two decades.

It's county election season, and allegations about the political activities of Richard and Lillian Bean are making the rounds. Reporters are receiving anonymous letters counting the ways Bean's employees are being forced to toil at bean suppers and community fairs. Variations of these stories have surfaced periodically in the past, but have thus far failed to persuade the electorate, which has five times returned Republican Bean to office by comfortable margins.

This year, however, things are different. The questions this year are being asked more openly, and the major question is no longer is there a Bean Machine, but what is the Bean Machine? Is Lillian Bean correct in portraying it as a harmless, well-intended family operation bent on good works? Or, is it something else entirely?

The major questions are these: Does Bean use county employees and county time to enlarge and consolidate her political power? Does she hire employees based more on their political value than their abilities? And does she use her clout to hand-pick other public officials, particularly judges?

Those who say yes to all three questions point to several specifics, the first of which is the legions of employees Bean turns out for political functions like the annual Fall Homecoming at the Museum of Appalachia.

The cornbread and beans concession at the Homecoming is a homey little scene starring Lillian in a gingham dress stirring an iron kettle full of pinto beans, surrounded by her minions, who "love" the event, she has said, "because they get to see the exhibits."

Questions have arisen because Bean rewards these employees with a "Lillian Bean Day"—a day off work at taxpayer expense for every day they work the Museum. She has justified the practice by saying the proceeds go to charity.

A check of Bean's financial disclosures, however, shows that the proceeds of the bean sales go straight into her campaign coffers. In 1996, for example, Bean reported a contribution of $3,648.50 from the Museum of Appalachia.

Museum head John Rice Irwin says his organization has never contributed to Bean's campaign fund and that this amount corresponds exactly to the reported gross proceeds of her beans and cornbread concession that fall, on which she paid the Museum a 15 percent surcharge.

"We have never contributed money in any shape, fashion, or form to her campaign or anything she represents," Irwin says.

Bean did not choose to comment on the Lillian Bean Days, but her chief deputy Laura Schaad defends the practice:

"A Lillian Bean Day is any day that Lillian gives in addition to a regularly-accrued leave day...The Museum of Appalachia is not a political activity. There are people who attend that festival from all over the United States, and each year, the money is used for charitable purposes."

Bean's 1996 Statement of Expenditures, which is very similar to statements filed in other years, lists few contributions of any kind. There are contributions to the Victor Ashe Committee ($120) and the Atchley for Senator campaign ($105), a $50 contribution to the "P.D." Christmas Party and $35 to Blount Mansion. All other expenditures were for campaign-related expenses, such as postage and buying and cooking beans. Total receipts were $19,783.24.

One elected official who asked not to be named (and there are many of those) says it's immaterial whether, or how much, Bean contributes from her campaign fund to charity, as long as she is using on-the-clock public employees to raise money. "The fact that the recipient of proceeds from a campaign account is a not-for-profit doesn't change the nature of a campaign expenditure. Whether it goes to Victor Ashe or Mother Teresa, it's still political advocacy on behalf of a candidate."

Bean's hiring practices have been spotlighted recently by the conviction of two of her high-profile clerks, Wayne Potter and Rudy Dirl.

Dirl, a county commissioner who generally voted in a fashion that the Beans found pleasing (the appointment of General Sessions Judge Tony Stansberry, for example), pleaded guilty to selling cocaine. Potter, whose family is close to the Beans, was caught attempting to lure into prostitution young women who came in to pay fines and court costs.

Schaad defends her boss for hiring both Potter and Dirl, saying that Bean had no way of knowing what Dirl was doing during his off hours and that Potter "had no criminal record."

"He needed a job and applied for a job and Lillian gave him a chance. I don't think you can fault her for giving him an opportunity."

This explanation ignores a well-publicized incident 10 years ago when Potter admitted stealing Little League money and was forced out of a job with the city Parks and Recreation Department.

The third point, the Beans' involvement in various races and political appointments, is well-documented. Two General Sessions Court judges who score poorly when rated by their peers are clearly affiliated with the Beans. A Bean daughter was named campaign treasurer for Tony Stansberry, who was appointed judge for a brand-new 5th division of the court after prevailing in a County Commission fight. And Richard Bean himself is campaign treasurer for Gail Stone Harris Jarvis, a sessions court judge who is seeking to move up to a Criminal Court seat. The Beans were highly visible in Jarvis' 1990 campaign.

Lillian Bean was appointed General Sessions and Circuit Court Clerk in 1979 when Wanda Teague went off to work for Lamar Alexander. Bean had come to Knoxville from her home in Lee County, Va., in 1961 when she graduated from high school. Here, she lived at the YWCA (in a room that Schaad says Bean "let" her employees refurbish last year out of their weekly paychecks). She attended business college and worked in the courthouse for then-Circuit Court Clerk Wretha Nicely Wood. There, she met and later married Richard Bean, who was working as a process server. Richard Bean, a widower, was already involved in political activity and was eventually appointed superintendent of the city juvenile detention facility by then-Mayor Kyle Testerman.

Superintendent Richard Bean is a local political figure of almost mythical proportions, universally believed to be the main Bean in the machine. A blunt, funny man with a reputation as a bit of a rounder, his day job is to preside over what is now the East Tennessee Regional Juvenile Detention Center, which incarcerates youth from a 16-county area.

Jail for kids, unlike Knox County's other jails, is not administered by the Sheriff's Department, which requires detention officers to complete a 12-week corrections academy course and be certified police officers. Juvenile detention officers, says state licensing consultant Jane Petty, are required only to have 40 hours of initial training plus an additional 24 hours annually. Petty, who inspects the Knoxville facility, says Bean "runs a pretty tight ship" but concedes that the operation is "unique" in some respects.

"The Knoxville facility meets our standards, as far as operations, but is unique in the sense that it is governed by a board of trustees," Petty says.

The East Tennessee Regional Juvenile Service was created by private act in 1977 and stayed in place under the 1990 Knox County Home Rule Charter. Under this act, Bean answers solely to trustees—two of whom are appointed by County Commission, one by the juvenile judge. One trustee, Elizabeth Hobbs, 75, worked as Bean's secretary prior to retirement and has donated money to Lillian Bean's campaigns. The other two trustees are Irene Meadows, 68, a Bean political ally, and Thomas G. Brown, 74.

Bean is not required to meet any higher educational or training standards than his employees, Petty says.

Bean's high degree of job security won't soon be threatened at the state level, since he and his wife enjoy a warm relationship with Gov. Don Sundquist. One wall in Lillian Bean's office sports a queen-sized blow-up of a photograph of Lillian and the governor. A close Bean ally, lawyer Bill Stokes, served as a top Sundquist aide and recently wrote a scathing letter on Lillian Bean's behalf to a newspaper publisher who offended the clerk.

Ask other officeholders about the Bean Machine, and the answers will mostly depend on whether they are speaking on the record or off. Here are some on-the-record opinions:

Question to Criminal Court Clerk Martha Phillips:

Is it common practice in the courthouse to run political campaigns on county time? Do your employees wear Phillips for Clerk buttons or T-shirts during the work day?

Answer: "No, and they won't ever. This office belongs to Knox County and I have no right to infringe on the rights of the people who work here, or the rights of the people who come to this counter."

Question to Sheriff Tim Hutchison (widely believed to be supporting Bean's opponent, Cathy Quist): What is the Bean machine?
Answer: "Bean Machine?" (big smile) "I've heard rumors of it for years."
Q. What does it do?
A. "They've been very active in many candidates' races."
Q. Have they been active in your races?
A. "Not for me (even bigger smile)."
Q. Are you supporting Cathy Quist?
A. "Once, I heard John Duncan say the quickest way to get beat is to stick your nose in other people's races. I don't endorse in Republican primaries, and I stay with the party candidates in the general election. However, Cathy Quist is a very close friend of my wife, Jan, and her fiancé, Bill Boyd, is my life-long friend, who just retired from being my chief deputy."

When asked the Bean Machine question, Democrat Anne Woodle, a former school board member who won a race against Bean-backed Republican Kyle Crippen in 1992, is blunt:

"How do you prove the existence of a political machine? All I know is that when I ran the first time, I was told my opponent was a Bean Machine candidate and there was no beating the Bean Machine. I was told by longtime Republican party members that the Bean Machine had a standard way of running a campaign and said what I could expect was everything from my opponent [making] no public appearances to mailings focusing on my opponent's family connections in the community.

"I was also warned of whisper campaigns—that I was morally questionable, attacks on my family, that I had an immoral and excessively permissive personal value system, that I wasn't a 'Christian.'

"Everything that was predicted by these long-time Republican officeholders happened just like they said. Is that proof? I don't know...Do I believe there is a Bean Machine? Yes."

It is Monday morning talk radio and Lillian Bean is asked the Bean Machine question once again. She repeats the answer she gave on TV, but, in a twist evocative of Richard Nixon's "Checkers" speech, expands the list of players:

"It's just me, my husband, my children, and our little Pomeranian dog. That's the Bean Machine."

Ed. Note: The writer, Betty Bean, is not related to Lillian Bean.