Knox County Law Director Armstrong Faces Election Challenger, Controversies

In Cover Stories, News by S. Heather Duncanleave a COMMENT

This story is part of our Voter’s Guide to the 2016 Knox County Primary Elections.

The Knox County law director race pits the incumbent Richard “Bud” Armstrong, who promotes his management ability, against challenger Nathan Rowell, who offers longer experience in government law. Although both are running in the Republican primary, the differences in their approaches to the job run deep. With no Democratic challenger, the winner of the primary will effectively take the job.

The county law director provides legal advice and representation to the Knox County Commission, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, and the Knox County Board of Education. It seems straightforward, but controversy over Armstrong’s legal advice about the final contract of outgoing schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre has proven the office can be as influential—and politically charged—as any other on the local ballot.

Rowell, a partner in the law firm Watson, Roach, Batson, Rowell and Lauderback, has been an attorney for more than two decades. He says he has spent most of that time representing cities and counties across East Tennessee.

“I am more qualified than most attorneys who don’t practice in this rather unique area of the law,” Rowell says.

Armstrong, on the other hand, has been an attorney just eight years, following a three-decade career at the Tennessee Valley Authority. There, his duties were split between managing environmental compliance and developing curriculum and research in labor-force development related to advanced manufacturing.

Armstrong faced criticism in December from school board members after a divided board voted to extend the superintendent’s four-year contract by two years. Armstrong argued that this continued the contract beyond the time frame allowed by state law. He also says the contract’s lump-sum “liquidated damages” payout was not allowable under government law. The board amended the suggested contract Armstrong had provided, changing these elements against his recommendation, and passed it a month before superintendent McIntyre resigned.

But Armstrong’s advice again came into play when the contract came before the County Commission in December: He hand-wrote the word “not” before the phrase “legal in form and correctness” on the signature page.

When asked why he chose that method of conveying his legal opinion, Armstrong says, “I could either write a dissertation as to why it’s in legal form, or write the word ‘not’ on there.” He pointed out that he would not have raised the issue again if the Commission hadn’t voted on the contract—although its 9-11 defeat had no practical effect, since the Commission can’t legally dictate how the school board spends money that’s already appropriated.

School board Vice President Tracie Sanger released a statement calling Armstrong’s method of conveying his opinion “the worst kind of passive-aggressive political games,” and board member Doug Harris said he paid an independent attorney to review the contract because he doesn’t have confidence in the law director.

Armstrong’s previous stint in office as a county commissioner (for two years, representing the 8th District) has complicated his relationship with some board members.

“They think everything I do was politically-motivated because I was on Commission, and we had to pass their budgets and I had to ask a lot of hard questions,” Armstrong says. “If you want to say there are politics going on, there probably is, but I don’t think it’s coming from the law director.”

Armstrong says another attorney in his office was the primary contact for the school board until September. “I went over there… when the new board came on because I could see the tension was mounting and I thought it was my job to take the heat,” he says. “I have been attacked coming and going from both sides at times, and I’ve lived through it. When we have a highly split board… it doesn’t matter what you say, you’re going to make somebody mad.”

The situation stirred an old debate about whether the law director can represent all the government bodies it is supposed to—without conflicts of interest. In fact, the Board of Education filed a lawsuit 15 years ago seeking to sever itself from representation by the law director in favor of hiring its own attorney. Coincidentally, Rowell was the attorney representing the school board in the matter. (Armstrong was not law director at the time.)

Back then, a Chancery Court judge ruled against the school board, which appealed. But the case was settled in 2003 with an agreement that if a conflict of interest arises between the law director and the board of education, the law director will appoint an outside attorney to represent the board. (If there is no agreement about whether a conflict exists, the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility will decide.)

Rowell says the law director’s office has been representing multiple parties in cases where there is a conflict of interest, instead of hiring an outside attorney, although his example involved the Sheriff’s Office and some of its employees.

Rowell also disagrees with Armstrong’s legal opinion on McIntyre’s contract. “What they’ve done every year is vote to offer a new contract for four years. That terminates the previous contract,” making it legal, he says. He added that Oak Ridge takes the same approach.

Rowell points out that Armstrong voiced no objections to the superintendent’s previous contract extension, which was structured the same way. (Armstrong says he did not review that contract, but the school board specifically requested him to do so this time.)

Rowell calls Armstrong’s handling of McIntyre’s contract “unprofessional” and deems his opponent “a career politician who has politicized that office for his agenda or someone else’s agenda. The law director should be a neutral office, more so than any other elected office.”

Armstrong says he pursued a law degree after retirement because of an interest in juvenile law, but his brief stint on County Commission ignited his interest in the law director’s job. He says he prefers it and doesn’t miss being a decision-maker on the Commission. “I’m an advisor and counselor and try to stay out of the policy end of it,” he says.

Although his legal career has been short, Armstrong says he provides management and process knowledge that Rowell and previous law directors lacked.

The result, he says, is a streamlined, more effective office that has implemented a new third-party administration program for worker’s compensation and developed a program to manage delinquent tax collection for the Knox County Trustee. Many of his efforts have saved county taxpayers money, Armstrong says. For example, he says his office has reduced settlement costs and outside counsel costs by about $1 million each, and successfully pursued repayment of money taken from county coffers through false claims (such as illegal payouts by the Knox County Trustee’s office to “ghost employees” who did no work).

COVER_v2i06_Richard-ArmstrongRichard Armstrong

Nickname: Bud

Job: Knox County Law Director

Age: 65

How long in Knox County: Entire life

Education: Carter High School, Bachelor’s in quantitative economic geography & Masters in curriculum (same focus as undergrad), both from University of Tennessee. Doctorate in education from Columbia University, Doctor of jurisprudence from Nashville School of Law

Practicing law: 8 years

Prior political experience: One term as law director (incumbent), Knox County Commission two years representing 8th district (election to fill a vacancy). Ran for an at-large county Commission seat in 2010 and lost to Ed Shouse

Family: Wife, Patti Jo Armstrong

Community: Board of trustees for VFW 1733 Auxiliary. President-elect of Tennessee County Attorneys Association


COVER_v2i06_Nathan-RowellNathan Rowell

Job: Partner in firm Watson, Roach, Batson, Rowell and Lauderback

Age: 46

How long in Knox County: Entire life

Education: West High School. Bachelor’s of Science in communications from University of Tennessee, law degree in 1995 from UT College of Law

Practicing law: 19 years

Prior political experience: None

Family: Father was dean of the UT college of education, mother a retired teacher

Community: Chairman of board of trustees at Church Street United Methodist, VP/President-Elect of Board of Directors of the Community School of the Arts, board of directors of City People, and on selection committee for UT Educator’s Hall of Honor

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at

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