Bradley County Sheriff's Office forensic audit still on the table, but some residents call for end to 'witch hunt'

Bradley County Sheriff's Office forensic audit still on the table, but some residents call for end to 'witch hunt'

August 15th, 2017 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — A financial fraud expert gave Bradley County commissioners a simple analogy Monday to explain the difference between the county's regular annual audit and a forensic audit that would look for evidence of wrongdoing.

The first is like going to the doctor for your annual checkup and getting a clean bill of health, said Bill Bracken, a retired CPA and former certified fraud investigator who lives in Polk County.

The second is what your doctor would do if something in your test results didn't look right: send you to a specialist to see if there's reason to worry.

Some commissioners want a specialist to analyze the finances of the Bradley County Sheriff's Office after questions since 2015 related to possible misuse of credit cards; of special treatment for Sheriff Eric Watson's wife, a bail bonding agent; of what happened to more than $100,000 that can't be found from the jail's food budget, and more.

And that was before Watson was indicted last month on six felony charges of possessing or using altered or forged vehicle titles in his side business as a used car salesman.

A separate probe by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is in its 14th month, an agency spokeswoman said shortly after Watson was indicted.

The sheriff has denied any wrongdoing and said his political enemies are working against him.

At last week's Finance Committee meeting, Commissioner Dan Rawls asked his colleagues to consider hiring an outside auditor, and he arranged for Bracken's briefing Monday.

Bracken said the annual audit by the Tennessee Comptroller's Office basically only checks to make sure financial statements submitted by county managers comply with accounting rules.

"They are not designed to uncover waste, fraud and abuse," he said. A forensic audit would look for weaknesses in the financial controls and, possibly, for evidence that "may find its way into court" in some cases. Bracken said most forensic accountants have training in criminology and other investigative skills.

Commissioners asked several questions about the scope, cost and time such a probe might take, but Bracken said those were hard to answer without having more specific information. Rawls estimated the cost last week at about $35,000. Commissioners said there'll be more discussion at the next Finance Committee meeting.

But a group of local residents who packed several rows in the audience Monday said the whole issue is a "witch hunt" and "political vendetta" against the sheriff. They said the commission shouldn't spend any more time or money trying to dig up dirt.

"People in this county are getting absolutely fed up," said Rick Ellis, pastor of Eagles Landing Worship Center and a chaplain at the Bradley County Jail. "This is a lot of money, and for what?"

Audience member Ernie Bowman had a handout noting that any county official who knows about financial shenanigans is required by law to report it to the comptroller's office.

"It's time to end 'Witch Hunts' and 'Grand Standing' and get back to the business of serving Bradley County Citizens," Bowman's statement read. "Until this personal vendetta began, Eric Watson had an impeccable record serving our community and the taxpayers of our state."

Watson resigned in lieu of termination under former Sheriff Jim Ruth after an internal investigation found he falsified his time sheets.

Bowman told the Times Free Press, "Before we start spending taxpayer money on a forensic audit we should go this route first."

He said the vendetta arose out of "a case where [Watson] didn't fire somebody."

He didn't name names, but Rawls recently lost a lawsuit filed by a former deputy over a business dispute. Some have attributed Rawls' determined digging into the sheriff's office to anger that Watson wouldn't fire the deputy. Rawls said he has no personal motive but is carrying out his fiduciary duty as a commissioner.

Also Monday, commissioners agreed to vote next week whether to authorize Mayor D. Gary Davis to negotiate a lease of office space in the new Bradley County Workhouse to Tennessee Recovery and Monitoring.

The company offers electronic monitoring, drug and alcohol testing and steering wheel locks and serves people on bond or misdemeanor probation. The company is owned by Andy Baggenstoss, who also owns the bail bonding company that employs the sheriff's wife.

The group was supposed to vote last week but some commissioners were unhappy at county government becoming a landlord, especially for a for-profit company. Then a surprise second bidder emailed a higher offer just before last week's meeting, winning a seven-day delay to prepare a full bid.

An obviously annoyed Davis said the second bidder, Cleveland attorney Andrew B. Morgan, never contacted him about leasing the space and his bid failed to meet specifications.

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