NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — An exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation is raising questions about how a Davidson County judge spent taxpayer money from a $200,000 federal grant.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates found Judge Rachel Bell rented office space in a building that her parents own, and directed grant money for the rent payments to be made to a company that she owns.
Judge Bell highlighted the C.A.R.E. Diversionary Court in her re-election campaign.
She founded the court in 2018 after the Center for Court Innovation awarded her up to $200,000.
C.A.R.E. stands for Creating Avenues for Restoration and Empowerment.
Her grant application promised a "restorative justice" program that would initially focus on young people charged with non-violent crimes in North Nashville's 37208 zip code.
That zip code has been reported as having the highest arrest rate in the country.
Those who participated in the C.A.R.E. Diversionary Court could avoid jail time and have their charges expunged.
The first day after getting the $200,000 grant, before hiring any staff, she began renting office space for the court in a building that her parents own at 2109 Buena Vista Pike.
She submitted quarterly invoices directing rental payments of $650 per month to be paid to Solutions Now, which is a company she co-owns with her partner Dorsha James.
Dennis Dycus, who retired from the State Comptroller's Office where he spent 39 years auditing local governments and nonprofits for fraud, told NewsChannel 5 Investigates, "It's unusual, and as an auditor, I look for unusual things."
"You can't pay yourself, and that appears to be what is happening here," Dycus said.
He was surprised by the rental payments and that the judge rented an office for the court on the very first day of the grant, despite having free office space in the courthouse.
"I'm not so sure I would see the need for office space the first day, maybe the next month, but not the very first day," Dycus said.
Six months later, when Judge Bell hired a C.A.R.E. Court director, she was provided office space in the Justice A.A. Birch Courthouse where Judge Bell's office is located.
In addition to the space at the courthouse, the nonprofit McGruder Center also provided free space to the C.A.R.E. Court, where Judge Bell also holds monthly expungement clinics.
But it was not just office space.
Shortly after getting the grant, the court started paying monthly for a large storage container, which still sits outside her parents' building.
Judge Bell tells NewsChannel 5 Investigates the POD unit was used to house items mostly unrelated to the C.A.R.E. court, such as tables and chairs for the expungement clinics at the McGruder Center and equipment for Saturday Community Service Work dockets she periodically holds in North Nashville.
The grant paid $217 dollars a month for the container for nearly two years, all funneled through Judge Bell's company, Solutions Now.
"The judge appears to be paying herself and if that is the case, that would be a direct violation of the conflict-of-interest law," Dycus said.
Last month Judge Bell defended the payments in a statement to NewsChannel 5 Investigates, writing the "grant expenses were pre-approved, reviewed and properly administered by the TN Supreme Court, Administrative Office of the Courts" which oversaw the grant.
But when we showed the judge's statement to the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), a spokesperson sent the following written response:
"The specific vendors or companies were selected by the Music City Community Court and were not pre-approved by the Administrative Office of the Courts."
The Administrative Office of the Courts further stated, "Beginning January 2019, the AOC received invoices for reimbursement for lease expenditures from Solutions Now. The information provided on the vendor's W-9 did not reveal any conflicts. At some point, after the CARE Court was in operation, we learned of an ownership interest in the building by a family member."
When NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked about Judge Bell's ownership of Solutions Now, the Administrative Office of the Courts responded, "The AOC learned just this week that Judge Bell is a named principal of Solutions Now."
When Judge Bell applied for the federal grant she wrote "in the first 12 months of operation we believe 100-125 participants will participate in the C.A.R.E. program."
But after the first year, no one had participated in the program.
More than a year after the grant began, the COVID pandemic hit, closing most court business.
By the time the grant was over, only one person had been in the C.A.R.E. Court program, and that person did not finish.
In a final report, Judge Bell blamed COVID for the slow start.
But despite the COVID shutdown in 2020, she moved forward spending more than $4,000 on T-shirts, polos, and promotional items like messenger bags, and she spent at least $3,000 on promotional videos including interviewing the one participant in the program.
The videos were posted to social media but some of them ended up being used in Judge Bell's recent re-election campaign.
"Just my thoughts are how did that contribute to the purposes of the program," Dycus asked about the promotional items.
"I've never seen a contract that says, 'if we have something unusual, if we have a pandemic, then the rules don't apply,'" Dycus said.
The grant also kept paying for rent and the storage unit after COVID hit, but when the grant finally ended in August of 2020, her re-election campaign began paying for the storage unit and for an office in the same building her parents own.
Judge Bell told NewsChannel 5 Investigates last month the C.A.R.E. Court never got out of the pilot stages, and as we first reported, only 14 people have ever been in the program.
Four of them were seen in a video beating a 17-year-old in a motel parking lot which was first aired by NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
The men had their charges reduced so they could appear in the C.A.R.E. Court which is for nonviolent offenders.
But after we aired the video of the beating, Judge Bell removed the four men from the court citing the comments made by the victim's mother.
Bell says the men's cases will now be heard by a special judge, but it is unclear what steps if any have been made to identify a judge to handle the cases.
In a statement released today, Judge Bell defended the rent of $650 per month in her parents' building, which she wrote was "well below fair market value."
She wrote it "included utilities, Wi-Fi, along with access to all common areas and a conference room."
She wrote that she selected "Metro approved vendors for Metro expenses and other vendors for my expenses" which included Solutions Now - the company she owns.
And she emphasized all "invoices and receipts were reviewed and accepted for reimbursement without question" by the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Again, the Administrative Office of the Courts said it learned just last week that Solutions Now was owned by Judge Bell.
Here are full statements from Judge Bell that pertain to the spending of the grant: