Action will not be taken against three Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office employees who wrote character letters on behalf of former Sheriff Billy Long.
Administration Director Don Gorman and reserve officers Dennis Dent and Perry Perkins likely did not violate departmental policy by writing the letters, department officials said. Their letters were among 32 filed in federal court by defense attorney Jerry Summers, and some letters ask for leniency as Mr. Long’s Nov. 19 sentencing date nears.
Departmental policy states that “giving testimony as a character witness for any defendant in a criminal trial without the knowledge and approval of the sheriff” is prohibited.
Mr. Long has pleaded guilty to 19 crimes after an investigation revealed he took protection money from local convenience store owners, laundered money, allowed a convicted felon to use of one of his firearms and made arrangements to smuggle drugs out of Mexico.
Deputy Chief Allen Branum, who served as interim sheriff when most of the letters were written, said he was not aware of every person who wrote a letter. He knew Mr. Summers asked employees to write them and did not tell anyone they couldn’t do so, he said.
“As far as formal requests, I don’t remember telling anybody they could not respond,” Chief Branum said. “I said to just keep it respectful. I don’t ever remember saying ‘Yes, do’ or ‘Don’t.’”
Sheriff Jim Hammond, who was elected in August, said he was told some employees had written letters, but that he had no issues with their doing so. He said employees could not testify in court unless subpoenaed.
“I told them, ‘As a citizen, if you want to write a letter, that’s up to you,’” he said.
Chief Branum said he thought many people, including department employees, used the letters to express their feelings of anguish regarding Mr. Long’s arrest and he did not think the department could tamper with someone’s right to freedom of speech, as long as the letters were not detrimental to the sheriff’s department and did not condone Mr. Long’s behavior.
He said he had not read any letters, including those from Mr. Gorman, Mr. Dent and Mr. Perkins, but he did not plan to pursue any action against those who wrote them unless a formal complaint is filed.
In his letter, Mr. Gorman, who was appointed administration director by Mr. Long and also served as best man in Mr. Long’s wedding, wrote about his experiences with the former sheriff when they served in the Tennessee National Guard and did not mention their relationship as it related to the sheriff’s department.
“(Mr.) Long did an exemplary job during Desert Storm, always doing any and every job assigned to him and always volunteering for any job that no one else would accept,” Mr. Gorman wrote. “I relied upon (Mr.) Long heavily and in fact placed my life and well being in his hands on more than one occasion.”
Mr. Gorman said he had permission from Chief Branum to write the letter and asked for leniency for Mr. Long after being asked to do so by Mr. Long’s wife.
“I had mixed emotions about it knowing what the policy was,” Mr. Gorman said. “It was not from my position here at the sheriff’s office. What I tried to put on that letter was — during the time he worked for me and prior to being (at the sheriff’s department) — he was a good guy and was honest as far as I knew.”
Mr. Dent said he left the department in April because he did not have time to continue that job. His resignation had nothing to do with Mr. Long’s situation and he wrote the letters on personal terms, not professional, he said.
“I don’t approve of what he did, but he still deserves a chance, I believe,” Mr. Dent said.
Mr. Perkins, who could not be reached for comment Monday evening, was Mr. Long’s campaign manager during his last run for sheriff in 2006.