CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Some Bradley County commissioners clashed Monday over a local attorney's $2,675 bill for representing the Bradley County Sheriff's Office during a forensic audit.
Sheriff Eric Watson hired attorney Andrew J. Brown on Sept. 4 after commissioners voted to go forward with the special audit, a deep dive into the department's finances that would look specifically for evidence of wrongdoing.
Watson terminated Brown on Sept 15, saying in a Sept. 18 news release that because commissioners decided to have the audit done by the Tennessee Office of the Comptroller rather than hiring an outside firm, he no longer felt the department needed its own attorney.
But some commissioners, led by Thomas Crye, questioned why Watson felt the need to hire an attorney rather than rely on County Attorney Crystal Freiburg, and whether the sheriff even had the authority to do so. Crye asked Freiburg to check for an attorney general's opinion on the authority issue. If Watson overstepped, Crye and others said, the lawyer's fee should come out of the sheriff's budget rather than the county general fund.
That question was unanswered by Monday, when Finance Committee members renewed the argument.
Commissioner Charlotte Peak strongly defended Watson, saying prior sheriffs, including Tim Gobble, Jim Ruth and Dan Gilley, had hired attorneys to represent the department. Others said the situations were different, because at least some of those sheriffs were suing the county.
County Mayor D. Gary Davis said Peak was right.
"Elected officials can hire attorneys. It's been done too many times, and we've always had to pay the bill," Davis said.
Peak also said Freiburg's appointment to an ad hoc committee that worked to decide on the scope and cost of a forensic audit meant she was representing the county and thus couldn't represent the sheriff's office's interest.
Finance Chairman Milan Blake objected that Freiburg's function on the committee was merely advisory and she didn't have a vote.
"It wasn't an ad hoc vs. the sheriff," Blake said.
"To you it wasn't adversarial, to me it was adversarial," Peak countered. "She couldn't represent both at the same time. I see a conflict. In this situation we were looking to go after him."
"We were not," said Blake.
Were too, Peak replied. "The sheriff's office was the only department ever mentioned" in talks about commissioning a forensic audit, she said.
Davis said he could hold onto the bill for a couple of weeks while Freiburg researches the authority question.
"That doesn't take away from the fact that we owe a bill," he said.
The lawyer's bill was the second set-to for the group over the sheriff's office Monday.
Crye tried to block acceptance of an insurance check for a damaged Bradley County Sheriff's Office vehicle that is among a group Watson wants permission to auction off as surplus. Weeks ago, Crye got finance committee members to put a moratorium on vehicle sales by the department.
Asked Monday why he wanted to hold up on the check, Crye said, "I think the comptroller's business will be finished in the next two weeks." That puzzled some in the room, who noted the ongoing audit is for the fiscal year that ended June 30.
Peak said she was sick and tired of gossip about the sheriff's office and said that if any information is leaking out of the comptroller's office, it's a violation of confidentiality statutes.
"If anybody has an accusation or innuendo, let's get it out and talk about it. What's the issue?" Peak said.
"A lot of us are sick of obstruction," Commissioner Dan Rawls shot back. "I'm sick of this, too. There's not just one sick here."
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is in the 15th month of an investigation related to persistent allegations of credit card misuse, missing money and other problems in the sheriff's office.
The Tennessee Department of Revenue and the Department of Commerce and Insurance investigated after a December Times Free Press story questioning Watson's second business as a used car salesman.
In July, Watson was indicted on six felony counts of holding or using altered or falsified vehicle titles. On Sept. 20, the grand jury broke up those charges and indicted him on 12 felonies based on the same evidence.
Watson has denied wrongdoing, blaming the allegations on political opponents. He says he has cooperated fully with investigators and given them access to all the department's and his own personal records.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.