Bradley County commissioners discuss forensic audit of sheriff's office

Bradley County commissioners discuss forensic audit of sheriff's office

August 8th, 2017 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson speaks during the opening of the Brian K. Smith Inmate Workhouse on Thursday, July 27, in Cleveland, Tenn. The new inmate workhouse allows low-security inmates the opportunity to work in the community while still serving their time.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — The recent indictment of Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson on six felony counts, atop multiple allegations of misspent or missing money, has some county commissioners talking about a forensic audit of the sheriff's budget.

Commissioner Dan Rawls brought it up in the Finance Committee meeting Monday, saying, "When you have a department that's out of control and has been for a while, and there are pieces that can't be found, we have a responsibility to clear this up."

The Bradley County grand jury indicted Watson last month on charges he knowingly possessed or used car titles he knew had been altered or forged. The charge come from a Times Free Press investigation into Watson buying used cars in Miami and Washington, D.C., and selling them in Tennessee without a dealer's licence.

Those counts are only part of a larger probe by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation that's in its 14th month and still going. Information handed to the agency includes questions whether Watson misused the sheriff's office credit cards; improperly used his influence to get a woman with whom he had a personal relationship out of jail; used his position to help his wife, a bail bonding agent, gain the lion's share of bail bonds written in Bradley County, and other allegations.

Watson has denied wrongdoing and said his political enemies are behind the allegations.

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Commissioners also have questioned the sale of the sheriff's department's $100,000 surveillance van for $20,000 two years ago. More recently, they asked why the jail remains filthy and dilapidated, with broken toilets, sinks and showers, shortages of inmate supplies and a broken security camera system, after the county boosted the sheriff's budget by nearly $1 million to make repairs.

A more recent puzzle is what happened to nearly $100,000 from the jail food budget. The jail stopped paying its food bill after discovering it was paying for more meals than were being served, and eventually contracted with another vendor. Lawyers for the first food supplier, Aramark, and the county got involved and reached a settlement. But it's not clear what happened to a big chunk of money that wasn't paid to Aramark and yet didn't show up in the food line item in the jail budget.

The county's budget is audited every year by the Tennessee Comptroller's Office and usually gets good marks for financial controls. But those audits mainly check to see whether revenues and spending line up and the county is following local and state fiscal policies.

A forensic audit, on the other hand, would essentially be a deep dive into the sheriff's office's financial records to find evidence for use in court.

"A forensic audit can be conducted in order to prosecute a party for fraud, embezzlement or other financial claims," the website Investopedia states.

Rawls said the sheriff's office's finances need straightening out once and for all.

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Commissioner Thomas Crye agreed, and so did Chairman Louie Alford.

"I personally think it's time we look into that area — there have been too many questions over the last year or two. I think it's time for a close look," he said.

Commissioner Milan Blake asked about the audit's scope, and Charlotte Peak asked about the cost — Rawls said it would probably be around $35,000 — and whether all the other county departments would be looked at as well. She said she wouldn't vote for "somebody's personal agenda."

Though Rawls has been point man in the probe of the sheriff's office, he said his motives are not personal; the entire commission has a fiduciary responsibility.

"That's the only department we can't find money in," Rawls said.

Finance members agreed to talk the idea over further at a work session, and Rawls said he knows a retired accountant who can describe the process in greater detail.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.