For at least the 11th time in the past 25 years, federal authorities on Saturday charged a sheriff in East Tennessee with breaking the law.
Federal prosecutors who oversaw a 10-month sting operation charged Hamilton County Sheriff Billy Long with taking a dozen bribes to overlook illegal activity since April 2007.
“Uncovering public corruption is our No. 1 priority,” U.S. Attorney James R. “Russ” Dedrick said in announcing the latest indictment.
In the 1980s, federal authorities indicted eight East Tennessee sheriffs on corruption and drug charges. In 1990, former Blount County Sheriff Avery Mills was convicted on 18 counts of the Hobbs Act. Two years ago, former Cocke County Sheriff D.C. Ramsey resigned after being charged in a wide-ranging federal probe of racketeering, payoffs and illegal gambling.
In Hamilton County, James “Bookie” Turner was elected three times as Hamilton County sheriff and served two terms on the Chattanooga City Commission. He was indicted in 1967 on charges of conspiring to control illegal whiskey trade while serving on the City Commission. He was not convicted and went on to win re-election to the City Commission.
Mr. Dedrick said the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice regularly work with the 41 county sheriffs in the Eastern District of Tennessee. But federal authorities also are quick to investigate allegations of illegal activity by law enforcement agencies and public officials, he said.
“Law enforcement corruption cannot be tolerated and must be dealt with quickly and professionally,” Mr. Dedrick said. “When an individual violates the oath of office he or she swears to uphold, it’s important that we investigate that and bring these people to justice.”
Despite the number of sheriffs who have been charged by federal authorities in East Tennessee, FBI Special Agent Richard Lambert insisted such investigations are launched only when there is evidence of wrongdoing.
“It’s not something we do on a frolic,” Mr. Lambert said. “It’s based upon substantiated, credible evidence that comes to our attention.”
If allegations against public officials are substantiated, Mr. Lambert said the FBI often chooses to make a more extensive investigation using undercover agents and video or audio recordings of secret meetings.
Similar to the FBI’s corruption investigation of lawmakers in the Tennessee Waltz probe from 2004 to 2006, the FBI’s inquiry of Mr. Long involved such recordings and FBI cooperating witnesses offering bribes, according to the criminal complaint released Saturday.
In such investigations, the Justice Department relies upon FBI agents and does not involve local police, officials said.
On Saturday, both Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey and Chief Deputy Allen Branum said they were shocked by the arrest of the sheriff.