A Bradley County, Tenn., grand jury indicted Sheriff Eric Watson on 12 new felony charges Wednesday, as two state agencies continue investigations into Watson and the operations of his department.
The grand jury charged Watson with six counts each of holding an altered, forged or falsified vehicle title and using an altered, forged or falsified title. They are all Class E felonies, each punishable by one to six years in prison and fines of up to $3,000 upon conviction.
Watson's attorney said the new counts are a reformulation of charges brought against the sheriff in July after a Times Free Press investigation into Watson's side business as a used-car salesman. Those original charges — six counts of holding or using a title that had been forged or altered — will be dropped.
The newspaper investigation published in December described how Watson bought used cars in Florida and Washington, D.C., and brought them to Bradley County for private sale even though he didn't have a dealer's license. It raised the question as to whether Watson registered the cars in Bradley County and paid local sales tax on them before reselling them.
The Bradley County grand jury indicted Sheriff Eric Watson on two counts for each of six vehicles he bought out of state and resold in Tennessee:
* 2002 Crown Victoria
* 2002 Dodge Stratus
* 2005 Chevy Impala
* 1999 Dodge Stratus
* 2001 Chevy Blazer
* 2002 Dodge Stratus
Source: Bradley County court records
The 12 new felony charges all relate to six vehicles the Times Free Press discovered that Watson bought and resold.
Attorney James F. Logan Jr. said the superseding charges were aimed at clarifying what he called "duplicity" that potentially could lead to non-unanimous guilty verdicts against his client.
After an investigation by the Tennessee Department of Revenue, the grand jury in July charged Watson with six counts of knowingly holding or using forged or falsified car titles.
Logan challenged the wording of the charges, saying they charged two crimes in a single count for each of the six charges. That meant jurors might decide guilt on either, raising the possibility of a conviction that was not by unanimous jury vote.
"This is merely a correction in the method by which the charges were placed," Logan said Wednesday afternoon. "The government had to correct a mistake that the government made."
He also contended the charges would be merged should Watson be convicted — not that he thinks that's going to happen.
"I would not be surprised if there are 12 not-guilty [verdicts]. I would be a bit surprised if there was one guilty," Logan said.
He said the conditions of Watson's bond on the first counts remain in effect and he expects soon to file a motion to dismiss the new charges.
The sheriff's trial is set for Nov. 27.
Sheriff's office spokesman Lt. James Bradford responded to a request for comment with this statement: "Today's indictments from the Bradley County Grand Jury is a matter that Sheriff Eric Watson is dealing with through his personal attorney. These indictments have no relation to the operations of the Bradley County Sheriff's Office or involve his official capacity as the Sheriff of Bradley County."
Watson did not respond to emails sent to his work or personal email accounts asking whether he intends to continue in office or whether he expects he could win the Republican primary in May 2018.
As a constitutional officer, the sheriff may hold his elected office even if he's charged with a crime, but would be removed if he were convicted of a felony, according to Tennessee's Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and state comptroller's office are both investigating Watson's operation of the sheriff's office.
The TBI probe began in June 2016 after some Bradley County commissioners leveled multiple allegations of misconduct against Watson. Also at commissioners' request this month, the comptroller's office has expanded its annual county audit to do a deep dive into the sheriff's office finances, looking for evidence of wrongdoing.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at email@example.com or 423-757-6416.
This story was updated Sept. 20 at 11:50 p.m. with more information.