Bradley County to look into sheriff's office finances after allegations of fraud

Bradley County to look into sheriff's office finances after allegations of fraud

Bradley County takes next step in sheriff's office audit

August 22nd, 2017 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

Bradley County Sheriff's Office vehicles display new "In God we trust" decals.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

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CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Scrutiny of the Bradley County Sheriff's Office's finances tightened a couple of notches Monday when county commissioners voted to move forward with a forensic audit and take a closer look at the department's surplus property disposal.

The five-member Finance Committee unanimously approved Commissioner Thomas Crye's motion to form an ad hoc committee that will define the audit's scope and cost and report back by Sept. 11. Unlike the county's regular annual audit, a forensic audit would look specifically for evidence of financial wrongdoing. The specially formed group would comprise three commissioners and the county attorney.

Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson

Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Committee members never mentioned the sheriff's office, but as Mayor D. Gary Davis pointed out, "I think everybody knows what the intent is."

Persistent allegations of credit card misuse, missing money and other problems in the Bradley County Sheriff's Office sparked an investigation by the Tennessee Department of Investigation that is now in its 14th month. Separately, the Tennessee Department of Revenue and the Department of Commerce and Insurance investigated after the Times Free Press published a series looking at Sheriff Eric Watson's second business as a used car salesman.

Those probes led to Watson's indictment in July on six felony counts of owning or using certificates of title that had been forged or altered. The sheriff has pleaded not guilty and denied wrongdoing.

Even Commissioner Mike Hughes, who as a sheriff's office employee often recuses himself from votes on department business, supported the motion to put together specifics for a forensic audit.

"I really don't see anything wrong with us looking into it," Hughes said in the finance meeting. "I don't know that we're going to find anything, I don't know that we won't."

Commissioner Charlotte Peak, who has supported Watson over more than a year of controversy, also voted yes in committee. She initially cast a yes vote again in the full commission meeting that followed but switched it to no when her fellow 4th District commissioner, Howard Thompson, cast a no vote. Commissioner Robert Rominger also voted no.

Chairman Louie Alford said after the meeting he would name the commissioners for the ad hoc committee at Monday's work session.

"I think this is the first step. It seems like the people of Bradley County want us to do it. We're dotting our i's and crossing our t's, making sure we're doing everything right," Alford said.

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The full commission also went along when Crye asked to delay authorizing the sheriff's office to dispose of 11 vehicles and a boat as surplus property.

Such disposals have been a sore point with commissioners since Watson sold off the county's $130,000 surveillance van for $20,000 in early 2016 to a Nashville bail bondsman. Watson said the vehicle and its surveillance equipment was outmoded and obsolete, but department paperwork showed it recently had been renovated and upgraded. Commissioners also found last year Watson had sold off some vehicles and other property as surplus without commission authorization.

Crye said afterward he was "concerned about what appeared to be the quality of some of the vehicles" that were to be auctioned and wanted to have more time to study them. He said that since Bradley County is bordered on the north by the Hiwassee River, the department needs a boat.

He said photographs submitted by the sheriff's office don't show claimed damage, such as a rotting transom and deck and a waterlogged hull.

"There is no indication this boat being auctioned off is in salvage condition and no indication we are replacing it with another boat," he said.

During the earlier finance meeting, Crye's cracking-down mood spilled over into a general complaint about lax procedures for handling cash in some county offices.

Again, no names were mentioned, but Crye complained that cash-handling procedures don't have a "string of accountability," such as receipts and deposit records, to ensure money taken in for fees, copies or other small transactions is properly logged and deposited.

Finance chairman Milan Blake said all the county officeholders except the sheriff recently went for training by the comptroller's office on that issue, but Crye said having a policy and obeying it are two different things.

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"What we have in some places is a piggybank slush fund for miscellaneous expenses," he said.

He asked that a memo be sent to each county officeholder reminding them of the policy.

Finally Monday, the full commission voted to lease space in the Bradley County Workhouse to Tennessee Recovery and Monitoring, a company that provides ankle bracelets, drug and alcohol testing and other services to people on bond and misdemeanor probation. The firm is owned by Andy Baggenstoss, who also owns the bail bonding company that employs Watson's wife.

Crye and Commissioner Dan Rawls, as well as Mayor Davis, had objected the county had no business becoming a landlord to a private business. Rawls threw a wrench in the works recently by reading a letter from a local attorney offering a higher price for the space, but Davis said his bid didn't meet specifications.

The vote was 12-2, with Crye and Rawls on the losing side. But Davis congratulated Rawls anyway, saying the unexpected competition caused Tennessee Recovery and Monitoring to boost its bid a little.

Tennessee Recovery and Monitoring will pay $15,600 for the first year — up from $15,000 initially — and pay to finish out the interior of the space. It will pay $26,400 — up from $24,000 — in each of the final four years of the five-year lease.

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

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