A Nov. 27 trial date has been set for Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson on six felony counts of holding or using falsified car titles in his side business as a used car salesman.
Watson's attorney, James F. Logan Jr., said Special Judge Don Ash granted his motions to waive arraignment and set a speedy trial during a telephone scheduling conference Monday.
Logan also has filed motions to dismiss all charges against Watson, but the judge has not yet ruled on them.
Those motions contend the wording of the charges essentially state two separate offenses in each count. That could allow jurors to reach differing conclusions on each count, which means Watson could be convicted without a unanimous jury vote.
The grand jury voted unanimously on July 19 to charge Watson with holding or using certificates of vehicle title or registration that had been forged or falsified. Each count is a Class E felony, punishable by one to six years in prison and fines of up to $3,000.
The charges arise from a Times Free Press investigation published in December into Watson's unlicensed used car sales.
The newspaper reported Watson bought at least 18 used cars from GovDeals.com in Miami and Washington, D.C., and brought them back to Bradley County, where he sold at least 11. State law says anyone who sells more than five cars in a year must have a dealer's license, but Watson didn't have one.
Watson, a four-term state legislator and former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, denied any wrongdoing. In a statement released through his attorney, the sheriff said he has cooperated fully with the TBI and other agencies in the probe of what he called "accusations from some who desire to have more control over county government and the operations of the sheriff's office."
Watson said Bradley County residents and his employees can be assured the sheriff's office will "continue to provide the best services possible to insure [sic] the safety and property of all citizens and visitors."
None of the charges relate to any other allegations of misconduct by Watson that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has been looking into for 13 months. The TBI said that investigation remains open.
Information handed to the agency includes questions about 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.
The special prosecutor in the case, 4th Judicial District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn, has declined to say whether more charges are possible. He did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
On Monday, members of the Bradley County Commission discussed whether to hire an outsider to conduct a forensic audit of the sheriff's office budget. The aim would be to look for evidence of fraud, embezzlement or other financial misconduct.
The committee members agreed to bring the issue to a commission work session. Commissioner Thomas Crye, a finance committee member, supported the move in a statement Tuesday.
"I do not have a personal agenda in support of a forensic audit but I do have a fiduciary responsibility as a county commissioner to insure [sic] the citizens' money is property [sic] spent and accounted for. I do support a forensic audit of the Sheriff's Department to either remove the "cloud" or document the mistake[s] that exist," Crye said.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at email@example.com or 423-757-6416.
Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson is charged with six counts of violating Tennessee Code 55-5-116: Altering, falsifying or forging evidences of title, assignments or plates — a felony.
It is a Class E felony for any person to:
(1) Alter with fraudulent intent any certificate of title, certificate of registration, registration plate, or permit issued by the department or any county clerk of this state by virtue of chapters 1-6 of this title;
(2) Alter or falsify with fraudulent intent or forge any assignment upon a certificate of title; or
(3) Hold or use the document or plate, knowing the document or plate to have been altered, forged or falsified.