Bail agent: Sheriff's wife has unfair advantage [audio]

Bail agent: Sheriff's wife has unfair advantage [audio]

April 15th, 2018 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson, left, stops to talk with County Commissioner Howard Thompson as he leaves the courtroom with his wife Tenille Watson, right, after a hearing on a motion to dismiss felony counts against Sheriff Watson on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017 in Cleveland, Tenn.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tenille Watson prepares to leave with her husband, Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson, after a motions hearing in the courtroom at the Cleveland Municipal Building on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017 in Cleveland, Tenn.

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tenille Watson...

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

Bonding bump

The bail bonding business is growing fast in Bradley County.

In March-April of 2015 there were $857,750 in bonds written in Criminal Court and $1.2 million in Sessions Court, according to records from the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office.

By November-December 2017, those figures were $1.3 million (up 32 percent) and $2.56 million (up 48 percent) respectively.

The number of arrests for those years, though, grew by only 20 percent, from 5,802 in 2015 to 7171 or so in 2017, according to TBI figures and the Cleveland Police Department. The 2017 figure doesn’t include the city of Charleston, Tenn.

When Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson's wife became a bail bonding agent in February 2016, other bondsmen worried she'd have an inside track in the business.

Tenille Watson started fast, court records show. In her first three months on the job she wrote more bonds for criminal defendants than the second most-successful company did with three agents, records show.

In March and April of that year her employer, Cumberland Bail Bonding Co., captured around 32 percent of the bonds from Sessions and Criminal court, leaving 15 other agencies in Bradley County competing for the rest.

By November-December 2017, Cumberland's share was 35 percent, more than $1.3 million, and Mrs. Watson wrote all but about $23,000. The next-highest competitor, Hope Bonding, wrote around $662,000 for the period.

Veteran bonding agents have told the Times Free Press that Mrs. Watson was astonishingly successful as a rookie in a business built upon relationships, and she seemed to have access to information other agents didn't.

"She seems to be writing the bonds right after the bonds are set and she's not in court when it happens," said one longtime agent, speaking anonymously for fear of retaliation.

Now information provided by a whistle-blower also in the bonding business substantiates those suspicions. The information includes emails alleging Mrs. Watson poached bonds from other agents, and a recording of a call in which she did that. There's a text from her to a booking officer's private cellphone ordering inmates be held until she could get there and write bonds for them.

There's also a recording of the president of the Tennessee Association of Professional Bail Agents (TAPBA), who works for Tenille Watson's boss, saying even if she had special access he wouldn't report wrongdoing by a bondsman or a Bradley County Jail employee because it could cost him money or his job.

"If Tenille Watson [has arrangements] with every single person in that jail in order to get bonds throwed to her, you know what she's doing illegal? Nothing. They are," TAPBA President Cecil "JR" Henderson said in a March 6, 2017, phone call recorded by his then-employee, Marce Holmquist. She gave the documents and calls to the Times Free Press.

Tenille Watson didn't respond to a request for comment Friday. In a legal deposition last year she was asked whether she thought her marriage gave her an unfair advantage in the bonding business. She said it didn't.

Henderson told the Times Free Press on Friday he didn't recall specifics of the March 2017 conversation. He said he was trying to tell Holmquist that if the company lost business, he might not keep his place.

Whose bond is it?
Caught off guard
I own the company
Those lists are illegal
President of TAPBA

"If Tenille is getting any benefit, if she had any type of insider information, I had no knowledge of it. There's no way I would, I'm not from Bradley County," Henderson told the newspaper Friday. He lives in Manchester, Tenn., in Coffee County.

Andy Baggenstoss, owner of Cumberland Bail Bonding Co., said if his agents have an advantage, it's because they live in Bradley County and can be close to the courts and the jail. He said some of the competing companies' agents have to drive from Chattanooga to write bonds.

"I think we win that game every day of the week," he said Friday.

Cumberland also has the most billboards up, and he's a heavy advertiser on local radio, he added.

"I would challenge you to see if other companies do that to the significance that we do," Baggenstoss said.

He said he has "no knowledge of Tenille Watson getting any assistance or help from anyone other than the company advertisements" and added that two men who formerly were Cumberland agents brought in more money than she does.

Sheriff Eric Watson flatly denied that any sheriff's office employee were slipping information to his wife, accusing the newspaper of "partisanship" and "bias."

He said Friday that after his wife earned her bonding license he issued a directive to all employees saying "anyone extending any preferential treatment to my wife or Cumberland would be disciplined."

"Give me names of alleged offenders and I will investigate," he said, and anyone who violated the directive "will be fired."

He and Baggenstoss both suggested election-season politics at work. Holmquist turned over the material a year after she was fired and after seeking legal advice related to a non-compete agreement.

"My integrity is intact. I only want the truth to come out," she said.

***

Baggenstoss owns bonding companies that operate in more than 70 Tennessee counties. Cumberland Bail Bonding Co. is run out of an office on Spring Place Road in Cleveland.

Henderson said he is CEO of Cumberland and another Baggenstoss bonding company, AAA. His own company, Bail Bonding Inc., DBA East Tennessee Bonding Co., operates out of the Cumberland office.

Henderson refers to himself repeatedly in phone calls recorded by Holmquist as Baggenstoss' partner, but told the Times Free Press he works for the Cumberland owner. He said he owns his own company that operates out of the same address and he licenses the name, East Tennessee Bonding Co., from Baggenstoss.

Holmquist worked for East Tennessee, but said that when she turned over money she made from writing bonds, she wrote checks to both Henderson and Baggenstoss.

She got her bonding license around the same time as Tenille Watson. She was fired in March 2017, about a month after complaining to Henderson and Baggenstoss that Watson poached 10 clients Holmquist had placed holds on.

"Holds" allow bonding agents to place dibs on certain clients; it gives them time to get to court. In Bradley County, the usual hold was two hours. Holmquist and other bonding agents told the paper that holds they asked for somehow didn't stick and that Tenille Watson wrote bonds for those defendants. The others asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation.

In an email sent early on Feb. 22, 2017, Holmquist said: "Andy wants the 'competition,' but there's [sic] got to be a level playing field. (and I'm keeping track) It's a little frustrating though."

In a follow-up email a short time later, she added: "While I'm already flustered, since when can bondsman text booking officers to their personal cellphones regarding clients?"

Holmquist gave the paper a call she recorded that same day with Mrs. Watson. Holmquist told Mrs. Watson she was about to write a bond for a certain client whose mother had given her the money. Watson said that wasn't going to happen.

"They [court officers] can't take your bond anyway 'cause I've got a hold on him."

Holmquist protested, saying Henderson told her to go ahead and that "a bond trumps a hold."

"No, it does not," Watson replied. "We already had a meeting over at the sheriff's office and everything. There is no bond that trumps a hold."

Holmquist also provided a text from Watson's Cumberland phone ordering holds on two defendants. She said Watson sent her the text, which was intended for a booking officer's private cellphone.

Holmquist said other bail agents only have access to the booking desk landline phone, not to booking officers' private cells.

***

Whatever the hold policy might have been, it ended on March 6, 2017.

Bradley County Jail Capt. Gabe Thomas called some bonding agents, including Holmquist and Mrs. Watson, to a meeting at the jail that day to say there would be no more holds.

Holmquist recorded the meeting. She said Sheriff Watson was there, too.

Thomas said County Attorney Crystal Freiberg had reviewed the hold policy and said it was illegal because the jail had no authority over bonding.

"Whoever gets here with the money, we have to let them go," Thomas said.

Holmquist called Baggenstoss after the meeting and he was exultant.

"I think it's fabulous because so many people live further away from the jail than Tenille does," Baggenstoss said.

Then she called Henderson and they spoke for more than 30 minutes. Holmquist said she was fine with not being able to order holds.

"Where I get my clients is court, not the phones, not the booking officers, not the inside people," she said. "I get mine from getting my ass up, going to court every day."

Henderson said he'd told Mrs. Watson previously "the lists," referring to the holds, weren't legal.

"I've told Tenille you better tell your husband that if one of those defendants brings a lawsuit against the sheriff's department over the fact that they were detained an additional two hours and he did not let them go because of this list, he's going to lose that lawsuit," Henderson said.

He added, "Now, am I going to stand up on the courthouse square and preach this to all the congregation? No, because I'm not going to get cross-ways with the sheriff's department."

Holmquist told Henderson she sent the Feb. 22 emails out of "frustration," since she was making money for both men, and Baggenstoss had reacted hotly.

"He basically just said, 'You're not going to go after my agent. If you have a complaint, you're going to make a vague complaint, but you're not going to name my agent, providing all these holds,'" Holmquist told Henderson. "And the second one, about the texting between her and specific booking officers? He never addressed that one. But he told me he has 75 agents and they're all replaceable."

Henderson told Holmquist he wasn't going to get in the middle.

"I own the company you work for. Andy and I have an agreement pertaining to mine and his partnership, what monies he gets out of the monies you generate. If I've got a problem with Andy I'm not going to run up there and tell something that I know Andy did, because it affects me at the end of the day also.

" If Tenille Watson's revenue is what generates revenue for myself in some way, me and Andy can argue all day long, unless, let's say, me as president of TAPBA," Henderson continued. "If I got involved as the president of TAPBA, then I no longer have a job because it's crossed something that Andy's done."

Henderson told the Times Free Press on Friday that he meant the TAPBA is a professional association, not a "policing" agency. Asked whether he had an ethical obligation to report wrongdoing, he said, "I don't know of anyone doing anything wrong. As a licensed bonding agent, I'm not getting into a squabble between two agents when I don't know anything about whether it's true or not."

Holmquist also infuriated her bosses with social media posts criticizing the sheriff and his wife. She posted a Times Free Press story about a Cumberland agent in Marion County who got caught soliciting female clients for sex. As punishment for agent Kelvin Pell's infraction, a Criminal Court judge in Marion County slapped a six-month suspension on all three of Baggenstoss' bonding companies operating there.

Baggenstoss — not Henderson, her boss — fired Holmquist in late March 2017. In a phone call, he called her a "liar" and accused her of not being in court when she said she was. After she said she could not meet with him immediately, he terminated her contract.

***

Other bail bonding agents in Bradley County say they believe Tenille Watson has insider knowledge but say it's not something they can prove.

With no holds, "the first in wins, now," an agent said. "That makes more sense for her if she's getting information from inside the jail."

"She's also been out of town and written bonds" by signing them and allowing other agents to fill them out in exchange for a cut of the proceeds, an agent said.

In February 2017, a group of them took their concerns Criminal Court Judge Sandra Donaghy, who supervises the bonding industry. Bradley County Commissioner Dan Rawls went with them. Rawls has lodged multiple allegations of wrongdoing against Sheriff Watson; he's the one who called for the TBI investigation that ended after 17 months with no findings.

Donaghy told the group someone would have to sign a complaint and present evidence in court against Mrs. Watson. As of Thursday, she told the Times Free Press, no one has done that.

Rawls told the paper, "The problem there is once a bonding agent does that, they can be blackballed right out of it. If the accusations are true that people are being steered toward Tenille, then bondsmen can be steered away from her."

Donaghy said that if jail or booking agents were feeding information to Tenille Watson, the wrongdoing is on them and it would need to be handled by the 10th Judicial District Attorney General's Office.

When bondsmen first raised concerns about Tenille Watson's job in 2016, District Attorney Steve Crump said he would investigate any evidence of conflict of interest or inappropriate activity related to Mrs. Watson's job.

Later in the year, though, when Rawls called for an investigation into the sheriff's activities, Crump recused himself. He said he had a conflict because Watson had donated to his election campaign.

Campaign finance records also show Baggenstoss donated to both men. He gave $1,500 to Watson's 2012 successful state House race and $1,000 for his 2014 sheriff's race, campaign finance records show, and $500 to Crump's district attorney campaign in January 2014.

***

The Times Free Press reported Sheriff Watson has helped his wife in her business, from taking her to a DUI checkpoint in March 2016 to allegations that he drove her to the jail late at night to make bonds.

In April 2017 Watson drove his wife and another female bonding agent to the jail in his sheriff's vehicle. Once there, he had a prisoner brought out to the car and berated her for allegedly spreading rumors about his wife.

A corrections sergeant documented the incident in an email, saying the sheriff threatened to put the entire female living area on lockdown over the gossip.

That same weekend, and while the TBI probe was underway, Watson and his wife set out in his official sheriff's office vehicle to hunt down one of her bail skips. They took along another bonding agent and her husband.

The hours-long pursuit in the southeastern corner of Bradley County drew in seven Bradley deputies, two Polk County deputies, and a deputy and Georgia State Patrol officer from Murray County, Ga.

The Times Free Press obtained dash-cam video showing the sheriff driving his black Tahoe across the Georgia state line and holding a gun to the head of a motorist who had nothing to do with the chase. The dash-cam video showed Tenille Watson and the other bonding agent getting into the Tahoe after the motorist was surrounded and cuffed on the roadway.

Mrs. Watson was still in her husband's vehicle when Bradley County officers caught the bail-jumper later that night.

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


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