By Benjamin Bullard
The Cullman Times
Candidates for the Cullman County probate judge’s seat fielded questions at a forum so heavily attended Thursday that the host restaurant had to scramble to ensure all the guests were fed.
Perhaps it was because the race is the only one locally to field candidates from each major party. Or maybe it’s because of recent controversy raised by the incumbent over her opponent’s handling of an estate matter while working as an employee in the office.
Either way, the banquet room at the All Steak restaurant was packed with people eager to hear what Democratic incumbent Leah Patterson Lust and her Republican challenger, Tammy Brown, had to say.
Brown mostly stuck to her message, speaking from the same upbeat, positive script she’s followed since winning out among a crowded party field in the March primary race. She repeatedly referenced her 20-year career as chief clerk in the probate office, as well as her longstanding roots as a local resident with strong ties to Cullman County.
Lust dispensed with any pretense of a strategic script, cooly responding to forum questions with sharp impromptu answers that dealt head-on with each item the moderators — Times editor David Palmer and Chamber governmental affairs representative Brian Lacy — threw her way.
The two-minute time limit imposed on each candidate’s responses proved frustrating for the audience on a couple of occasions, mostly notably when Lust began a thorough accounting of why she’s made a campaign issue of highlighting a two-year-old controversy involving Brown’s role in accepting payment for work done as probate trustee over a fund set up to help pay patient expenses for a local elderly woman.
When asked the case’s significance as a campaign issue, Lust drew a breath and said, “Well, in two minutes or less, that’s going to be very difficult to do” — and then she dove in.
Lust offered an abbreviated history of events in the case, explaining her complicity in allowing Brown — then chief clerk serving in the probate office under Lust — to function as trustee. Lust said she allowed Brown to oversee the funds as trustee, in part, because the trust itself “specifically enumerated the trustee shall not be compensated — shall not be compensated,” she emphasized.
“During my term in office, there’s been one audit that was completed, and everything was clear. Pristine. Everything was perfect except for two instances of fraud,” she continued. “The first — an individual misused the money of a disabled veteran. He was a conservator and he failed — refused — to account for how he spent that veterans’ money...The only recourse I had under the law was to hold him in jail for six months. And that I did. That satisfied the auditors’ questions on that, and it was the only solution possible.
“The second instance of fraud was related to the case that you mentioned, and —”
— and, Ding-ding. That little bell rang, and Lust’s time was up.
Brown then fielded the same question, interpreting her willingness to accept payment on the interest accrued on the $50,000 principal in the trust fund as a reluctant deference to the wishes of the family — specifically, personal representative Sharon Walker — to provide her some compensation for the work she’d done in administering the account.
“It is true that I was asked by a personal representative of that estate to be appointed trustee...And it’s also true that, in that particular trust, the personal representative went and had prepared, it called without compensation. Any trust in the law provides for compensation, but I felt like that one didn’t need to start with.
“But the personal representative, Ms. Sharon Walker...amended that trust. She not only created it, but she amended it, and she had that right...She gave me only — and only — the interest off of that. The entire $50,000 was paid to her aunt who is in a nursing facility here in Cullman. I would never deliberately take any funds that I was not due.”
Brown never faced charges in connection with the incident, and an incident report of theft filed in March of 2009 by Leann Pruett, Brown’s successor as chief probate clerk, was eventually closed by the Cullman County sheriff’s office with no action taken.
Lust maintains the case was never properly investigated by the Cullman district attorney’s office, and has questioned the manner in which she said the case lost momentum once she’d notified law enforcement.
Brown has pointed out that the incident report was closed, with an “unfounded” notation.
Lust and Brown will face each other in the Nov. 6 general election.
Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.