After 16 months and zero results, some Bradley County officials are wondering whether the TBI investigation into Sheriff Eric Watson has stalled out.
Several people inside and outside the sheriff's office who came forward with evidence say they've never been asked to give sworn statements, and that the TBI agent who took over the case when the first agent retired six months ago has never contacted them.
The two Bradley County commissioners who pushed most strongly for the investigation — as well as people inside the department — say they're frustrated and cynical, fearing the case is being intentionally delayed because Watson is close to TBI Director Mark Gwyn.
Watson is preparing for trial on 12 felony charges related to forging automobile titles, but those charges were brought by the Tennessee Department of Revenue, not the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. A hearing in that case is set for Dec. 13, attorney James F. Logan Jr. said.
And the results of a forensic audit of the sheriff's office, requested by the county commission in August and conducted by the Tennessee Comptroller's Office, will be released before the end of the month, a spokesman for the office said Thursday.
As you know, TBI investigative case files are confidential by law. T.C.A. §10-7-504(2) (A), states in part “All investigative records of the Tennessee bureau of investigation … shall be treated as confidential and shall not be open to inspection by members of the public. The information contained in such records shall be disclosed to the public only in compliance with a subpoena or an order of a court of record.” So due to that confidentiality aspect, we are not able to address many of the specifics you’re asking about.
As with any case we have been requested to investigate, our findings are made available to the respective District Attorney General, and as something is documented by our Agents, that DAG has immediate access to information developed on these cases as they progress. If and when the DAG requests we investigate additional aspects of the case, we will do so. While the bulk of our investigation was provided to the DA by April of this year, Agents have continued to investigate additional angles as they develop. So we would object to the assertion that the case is being slow-walked. Once Agent Carrier left the agency, Agent Friel did continue the investigation.
When our Agents interview individuals as part of an investigation, those interviews are not required to be recorded, nor do the statements they obtain need to be sworn to be part of the investigative case file. So it would be incorrect to infer that because a statement was not recorded or sworn to, it was not included in the investigative case file.
While the Sheriff and Director Gwyn are professionally cordial … as the Director is with many law enforcement leaders ... to characterize that as a friendship would not be accurate. And it would also be inaccurate to suggest that the course of the investigation was at all affected by the fact that they know each other professionally. The Director is often requested to present awards to law enforcement officers from various agencies across the state, and will regularly speak at inaugural ceremonies when requested.
Finally, since the District Attorney does have the information contained in our investigative case file available for his review, I can’t speak to any other specifics as to a timeline, since that would be a determination made by that office.
"I think there needs to be some type of explanation as to what's going on here. It just seems this is being slow-walked for some reason," said County Commissioner Dan Rawls, who began calling for an investigation into the sheriff's office in spring 2016.
"Would a layperson be treated the same way? In my opinion, I think not," Rawls said.
Commissioner Thomas Crye said he is "disillusioned" the TBI investigation has gone on this long "without reaching a conclusion on innocence or guilt or releasing any findings."
"We have now entered the next election process and it has left the citizens of Bradley County in limbo as to what the facts really are," Crye said. "If nothing exists, the public has a right to be aware that nothing exists and they can make a logical decision in the election process. If findings are found, the public needs to be aware of that also."
Watson has denied any wrongdoing and has said the various allegations are being brought by his political enemies.
Rawls and Crye both said they have spoken at length with the TBI and 4th Judicial District special prosecutor Jimmy Dunn's office, as well as members of their state legislative delegation.
Rawls said he had spoken to Dunn's chief assistant, Brownlow Marsh, within the last two or three months about the length of time and the lack of results from the TBI.
"After probably about five minutes' conversation, he directly told me I was not the only one who was dismayed and disgruntled with the TBI but a lot of people were, and they themselves [meaning Dunn's office] were not happy with the way the investigation was going."
Dunn did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
TBI spokeswoman Susan Niland said Friday agency files are closed by law and she couldn't discuss the investigation. She said the "bulk of our investigation was provided to the DA by April of this year," but new angles are being investigated as they come up. And she disputed any suggestion the case is being dragged out or influenced by friendship between Watson and Gwyn.
In a series of stories beginning in March 2016, the Times Free Press documented multiple allegations against Watson, starting with a story about him bringing his wife, a bail bonding agent, to a DUI checkpoint in his official vehicle. The paper reported Tenille Watson, who had been a bail agent for just one month, subsequently wrote the single largest number of bonds from that weekend's arrests among the county's nine bonding companies.
That was shortly after Watson sold the county's $130,000 surveillance van to a Nashville bail bondsman for $20,000 and told commissioners he didn't get a bill of sale for the transaction. Commissioners tightened up on the county's asset disposal policy.
In June 2016, the Times Free Press reported that Rawls had brought multiple allegations about Watson to 10th Judicial District Attorney Steve Crump and to the FBI. Those ranged from questions about credit card and travel expenses to whether the sheriff used his influence to get a woman with whom he had a personal relationship released from jail.
Crump immediately asked for a special prosecutor, and Dunn, of Sevierville, was appointed. The TBI said in July 2016 it had named Special Agent Barry Carrier to investigate. After Carrier retired and joined the 9th Judicial District Attorney's Office, the TBI named Special Agent Dan Friel to take over.
Tennessee law [T.C.A. 39-16-402] defines official misconduct as using public office to gain a benefit or harm someone else; unauthorized use of official power; acts that exceed a public official's authority; violating a law relating to the office or job; or receiving any benefit not otherwise authorized by law.
Sources inside and outside the sheriff's office and the Times Free Press' own investigations have uncovered multiple incidents in which Watson's behavior appears to fit that definition. The sources in the sheriff's office asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Driving the wife
Multiple sources told the Times Free Press Watson occasionally used his sheriff's office vehicle to drive his wife to the Bradley County Justice Center to write bonds for her company, Cumberland Bail Bonds. After the March 2016 DUI checkpoint, Watson explained his wife's presence by saying they had been out to dinner and he was called to respond to a pursuit. However, a deputy's affidavit and logs of radio traffic show she was at the checkpoint from the start.
Tenille Watson and another bonding agent, Bernnie King, were riding with the sheriff April 15 when he threatened to lock down all the female inmates in the Bradley County Jail for gossiping about his wife. A corrections officer documented the incident in an email. A local defense attorney, Robin Flores, called it "extrajudicial punishment" and a First Amendment violation.
On Easter Sunday, Tenille Watson and King were in the sheriff's unmarked black Tahoe again as an entire crew of deputies searched in south Bradley County for one of Mrs. Watson's clients who had skipped bail. Video obtained by the Times Free Press showed both women getting into the vehicle after Watson crossed the Georgia state line, pulled a vehicle over and jerked the driver out onto the ground at gunpoint.
Bradley 911 records showed Watson was listed as taking part in 16 warrant attempts between June 2016 and May 2017. Of those, records showed, eight involved people whose bonds were written by Tenille Watson or other agents for her employer.
Helping a friend
A woman who exchanged months' worth of flirtatious Facebook messages with Watson starting late in 2014 and said she'd go on an out-of-town trip with him also relied on him when she was arrested on a felony robbery charge in July 2015.
A Facebook message at 5:48 p.m. that day urgent asked Watson to call her. County records show the woman was booked into the Bradley County Jail at 7:41 p.m. and released at 9:54 p.m., her bond posted by Cumberland Bail Bonds.
A note on the file states: "Received call from Sheriff Watson stating [the woman's] bond lowered to 1000 by Judge Randalph [sic] and there is a note on affidavit stating bond is 1000."
General Sessions Judge Sheridan Randolph told the Times Free Press the warrant originally called for no bond, but someone whose name he didn't remember called and asked him for a lesser amount.
"Why he would get so involved is unusual," Randolph said at the time.
Multiple sources in the sheriff's department said that when the woman was serving time at the jail, Watson would have her brought to his office. One source said he saw the woman, wearing a jail uniform, in Watson's vehicle outside the building, and he reported it to his superiors.
That source said associating with a felon is considered conduct unbecoming and is a firing offense under sheriff's office policy.
The source said he related that incident and sightings of Watson driving his wife to the justice center to Carrier, the TBI agent. He said Carrier didn't record the interview or ask him to make a sworn statement, and he said Friel has not contacted him.
Other sources told the Times Free Press they brought information to Carrier on a variety of issues, including altering a time sheet, using the sheriff's office credit card for personal purchases, such as paint for his former house, and writing the names of sheriff's officers on credit card receipts for meals he really was buying for his family.
The altered time sheet belonged to a sheriff's office employee who allegedly was paid overtime for going on one of Watson's private car-buying trips to Florida in August 2016.
When the Times Free Press requested the time sheet, multiple sources said Watson and Richard McAllister, then his director of support services, personally altered the record. They weren't able to alter the employee's pay stub, however, which showed more than $500 of overtime that didn't show up on the document given to the newspaper.
Sources said at least two employees made statements to Carrier about the alteration.
In contrast, after a man committed suicide in the jail last year, three corrections officers who failed to check on him were fired and indicted within three months on felony charges of official misconduct. One also was charged with tampering with evidence and tampering with governmental records, a misdemeanor.
The sources told the Times Free Press that Carrier downplayed their accounts, saying the employee had repaid the money and Watson had reimbursed the county for personal purchases made on the county credit card.
Law enforcement sources interviewed by Carrier said they were surprised he didn't record their talks or ask for sworn statements.
Niland said agents don't have to record interviews or obtain sworn statements. "So it would be incorrect to infer that because a statement was not recorded or sworn to, it was not included in the investigative case file," she wrote in an email.
Other sources said they have shared information suggesting commingling of funds between Watson and his wife, which is illegal. State law says spouses of law officers generally can't be bail bondsmen because the public employee isn't allowed to benefit from the private job.
Watson said he and his wife have fully separated their finances, but county documents show both signed the deed on the $460,000 home they bought last year and the $360,000 mortgage to finance the purchase.
Watson and TBI Director Gwyn's acquaintance dates at least to Watson's days in the Tennessee General Assembly. Watson worked for the Bradley sheriff's office at the time, though he resigned in October 2011 after an internal investigation concluded he had falsified his time sheets.
At the Legislature, Watson was known as a friend to law enforcement and the TBI honored him as such in June 2012. Published accounts quote Gwyn as saying Watson "has been a long-time supporter of the bureau and has been instrumental in helping TBI's legislative efforts this past year."
In October of that year, Watson was chosen for the first class of the new TBI Academy, an officer training program, and was class president. When Watson was elected Bradley County sheriff in 2014, Gwyn was the guest speaker at his inauguration.
Niland said that while Watson and Gwyn are "professionally cordial," as Gwyn is with many law enforcement leaders, "to characterize that as a friendship would not be accurate. And it would also be inaccurate to suggest that the course of the investigation was at all affected by the fact that they know each other professionally."
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.