CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Bradley County, Tenn., Sheriff Eric Watson held a news conference Thursday to dispute a number of claims made by a political action committee, as reported in a Times Free Press article the same day.
In a video also released Thursday, the PAC alleged Watson took nine state inmates, in civilian clothes and apparently unguarded, to a church service last year, putting the public in danger. The church trips are part of the sheriff's office's "faith-based programs" to help inmates' lives "change for the good," Watson said.
He said the PAC, Christians for Accountable Leadership "reached the pinnacle of dirty politics when they put themselves under the banner of 'Christian' while either not telling the whole truth or just spreading lies."
He said he did not dispute that the visit took place.
"As a matter of fact, we have trusties that works outside the jail almost every day," he said. " ... Our inmates are guarded everywhere they go. Just like the church visit, the church knew they were inmates, and former inmates attended as well."
Watson later said that last year's church outing was not a new practice. Houses of worship of any denomination may request to have inmates attend to speak to young people, and if inmates are willing and are a trusty, the sheriff's office will take them in a secured truck, he said.
The trusty program allows inmates who have received permission to work outside the jail.
However, trusties are required to be in distinctive clothing and supervised by a Tennessee Corrections Institute-certified officer. Photos of last year's church visit showed the inmates in street clothes and no guards were visible.
Watson said five officers were present at the church and there was "no reason" for why the inmates were in civilian clothing. He said they dress "according to what they're doing." If they are picking up litter, they wear an orange or green vest. If they are working in the garage, they wear tan uniforms. If they're speaking to a group, they "usually wear jeans and a shirt."
"Every church knows they're inmates," he said. "No one's ever denied they wasn't inmates."
Although, in a Facebook post after the May 21, 2017, visit to Council Baptist Church, Watson talked about how the "former inmates" had changed their lives because of programs in the Bradley County Jail.
Keith Watson, pastor of Council Baptist and brother of the sheriff, said in a Facebook post, his congregation "always welcome people to attend our services including people with prior arrests."
"As pastor, we never felt threatened by those attending the service and several officers were present during the meeting."
Watson said the PAC invented that the sheriff's office was trying to pass inmates as civilians while hiding its own political affiliations. He alleged the president of the PAC made campaign donations to his opponent, Steve Lawson, and presented a set of documents in support of his statement.
The documents included the committee's registration with the Bradley County Election Commission and an itemized statement of contributions to Lawson's campaign. The registration showed Nadine Haines as the PAC's president, and the itemized statement showed Melanie Haines as having contributed $1,500 to Lawson's campaign. While spokesman for Christians for Accountable Leadership Joshua Standifer said Nadine and Melanie are the same person, the documents show the contribution was made in December and the PAC was formed in February.
Additionally, Standifer said Haines and her husband, Jeffrey, contributed to and hosted "countless events" for Watson during his campaign in 2014.
"The story here is Eric Watson is misleading the public on this subject once again," he said. "Nadine and her husband felt like they had to write some wrongs."
Standifer characterized Haines' decision to form the PAC as a case of "buyer's remorse for electing a controversial figure."
"They contributed the max amount to Steve Lawson, and when they did that, they realized they had to do more," he said. "So they decided to form a PAC to investigate into Sheriff Watson's controversial tenure and discover the truth and provide a voice for the citizens of Bradley County."
Watson also brought Standifer's political affiliations into question, claiming that the Bradley County Young Republicans organization "made Joshua Standifer take a leave of absence a few weeks ago because of his involvement with my opponent's campaign."
While Standifer, the former chairman of the BCYR, did take a temporary leave of absence, he said it was self-initiated.
Ethan White, chairman of the Tennessee Young Republican Federation, said in a Facebook message that Standifer initiated the conversation explaining his plans to start the PAC, though he did not offer any details to White.
"... it was then mutually agreed upon that due to official policy of the Tennessee Young Republican Federation, that he should take a leave of absence as Bradley County YR chairman until after the May primary," White said.
"It is the official policy of the Tennessee Young Republicans that no state officer nor a county chapter officer is allowed to participate in a contested primary election. I have reiterated this to our team both on the state level and county level."
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