The campaign for Bradley County sheriff has gone negative before it's even official.
More than a month before the Feb. 20 qualifying deadline, incumbent Sheriff Jim Ruth is accusing his only announced GOP primary opponent of campaign finance shenanigans.
In a complaint filed Wednesday with the state's Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, Ruth claimed state Rep. Eric Watson is "unethically and even illegally" using money raised for his state House campaigns in his current bid for sheriff.
"I believe Watson acted fraudulently, knowing that he [sic] rules governing the state representative race are far more lax than the rules for the sheriff's race," Ruth wrote.
Watson says it's not true - even though state law would let him use money from his state representative account in his sheriff campaign, everything he's spent so far has come from money raised specifically for the sheriff's race.
"Jim Ruth is the sheriff. He made the allegation. So prove it," Watson said.
Ruth distributed copies of his complaint letter to the media Thursday. He wrote to ethics bureau Executive Director Drew Rawlins that Watson had told several people before the 2012 state election that he was going to run for Bradley sheriff in 2014.
Ruth told the Times Free Press in a emailed statement that "the question is not about the law allowing transfer of campaign funds."
"The point is that he was raising money for the representative race all while knowning [sic], and letting others know, that he was running for sheriff even prior to his re-election to his house seat."
He enclosed a brochure for a luncheon honoring "Representative Eric Watson" and hosted by U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., on Oct. 4.
That was the event where Watson formally announced he would challenge Ruth in the GOP primary May 6.
"A sheriff cannot take campaign contributions anywhere close to what a state house representative can," Ruth said in his statement to the Times Free Press. "Watson knows this fact. He raised tens of thousands, most all from out-of-county money, knowning [sic] it would be used on his campaign for sheriff."
His complaint letter also claimed that Watson was "terminated" from the sheriff's office in 2011 for lying and cheating on his time sheet.
Watson called the whole thing a fabrication by a losing campaign.
"They're using the media to do everything they can to defame my character. My record speaks for itself," he said.
He told the Times Free Press that he's raised about $20,000, all from inside Bradley County, for his sheriff's race. He said he accepted no money for his sheriff race until after the Oct. 4 luncheon.
Financial disclosures for the period are due Jan. 30. State figures show Watson has a bit less than $80,000 in his representative account.
"Not one person has asked for a penny back. The only person complaining is Jim Ruth, because he's not raising no money," Watson said.
He said the sheriff's department has deteriorated under Ruth and his chief deputy, Wayne Bird. More than 100 employees have left or been fired, Watson said, while "he appointed 12 new supervisors at over a half-million dollars a year in salary."
"Run on the facts. Run on the high crime rate of 9 percent that has increased in this county since Jim Ruth took office and the 7 percent that it's decreased in the state of Tennessee. They're not doing their job over there."
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.