Despite repeated promises to be a good steward of taxpayers’ money, former Hamilton County Sheriff Billy Long orchestrated illegal activity while traveling on the county’s dime, records show.
Travel expense records obtained by the Times Free Press through a freedom of information request show that Mr. Long spent nearly $1,000 from county coffers to attend a sheriffs meeting in New Orleans, La., from Jan. 15 through 20.
On Jan. 18, court records show he was discussing drug-trafficking operations on the telephone with a government informant. He admitted to doing so when on Monday he pleaded guilty to 27 of the 28 federal extortion, money laundering, drug and gun charges against him.
“Sheriff Long informed the (confidential witness) he would return from New Orleans ... to get his payment” in drug-trafficking proceeds, a criminal complaint filed in his case states.
The 56-year-old former sheriff — who resigned on Feb. 6, four days after his arrest — booked a roundtrip flight to New Orleans from Jan. 15 through Jan. 20, records show. The county paid $176 for the flight, along with four nights at a Marriott hotel at $126 each.
He spent $200 on meals and another $70 on taxi fare. He reported another $43 for “other” expenses, records show.
Don Gorman, Mr. Long’s personal friend and the director of administration for the sheriff’s department, said Monday evening that the former sheriff was a frequent traveler. The New Orleans trip was among those then-Sheriff Long took to network with other agencies and law enforcement officials, he said.
“He went to a lot of conferences to make contact with other states and counties,” Mr. Gorman said. “That’s important to us to have.”
County Finance Administrator Louis Wright said he was not immediately aware of any improper reimbursement filings on behalf of Mr. Long or anyone else in his administration.
Additional travel expenses on file included a trip to Las Vegas with several department members in November 2007 for a “Lethal and Less Lethal Force” conference. Mr. Gorman was among those to attend, and he said it was important to do so in light of the department’s recent acquisition of Taser stun guns.
An August 2007 trip to Memphis was equally as valuable, Mr. Gorman said.
During that trip, records show Mr. Long spent more than $400 for a one-way ticket home to Chattanooga for a required luncheon, but he drove back with Mr. Gorman to finish out the expense-paid weekend.
That’s because the trip, though it included a side trip to Tunica, Miss., was for important crisis intervention training, Mr. Gorman said.
“We had to know how to have our new crisis intervention team funded and staffed, and Memphis is nationally known for their crisis intervention,” he said.
Acting Sheriff Allen Branum — who records show often expensed fewer nights in hotels than Mr. Long when the two attended the same meetings in Nashville together — said Monday that he was not going to question his former boss’ decisions on travel.
“He had the authority,” Sheriff Branum said, explaining that Mr. Long sometimes would have extra meetings to attend and would need to travel to Nashville earlier or stay later.
“That was the sheriff’s call to make,” he said, adding, “I don’t know anytime when he said, ‘I’m going to just stay a couple extra days (on the county).’”