Allegations that a deputy chief in the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office cheated on a college course last year came about because investigators deliberately misquoted testimony in an internal investigation, a figure in the probe says.
Corrections Officer Ryan Epperson has been pushing top officials from the sheriff on down to change what he said are incorrect and misleading statements in an internal affairs report.
The fallout tarnished Deputy Chief Ron Parson, who believes the investigation was an opening for people in the department who felt "threatened" by him.
"I feel like they had the opportunity to go after me and run me off," said Parson, who was transferred from chief of patrol to jail chief shortly after news stories about the investigation appeared in June.
Sheriff Jim Hammond said the whole thing is nonsense.
"My personal opinion is Epperson is obsessing over something that doesn't make a hill of beans. He's reading into that something that's not there," Hammond said.
Hammond's chief deputy, Allen Branum, and internal affairs chief, Capt. William Johnson, who works for Branum, say the same.
"Who would benefit from that?" Branum said Friday. "I've been his supervisor; I've never had a major conflict with Chief Parson."
In June, the Times Free Press published a story saying that Parson "had a jailer complete a college course for him, then used the credit to maintain his state certification in law enforcement."
The story was based on a September 2010 internal affairs investigation that found Epperson was using Parson's computer log-in to surf the Internet at work.
Epperson told investigators that Parson provided the password so he could help the deputy chief with a command college course.
According to a transcript of his internal affairs interview, Epperson said he "helped [Parson] with some school work" by typing and formatting information Parson gave him. Parson gave him information to prepare a PowerPoint presentation, and Epperson did a small amount of research to complete a paper.
The final report from internal affairs stated that Epperson "stated he wrote a research paper and assembled a PowerPoint for Chief Parson."
Ronald Ray Parson, deputy chief of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office
Education: 1967 graduate of Central High School; attended Chattanooga Police Academy
Previous law enforcement experience:
• 1978-1979: Bradley County Sheriff's Office
• 1979: Hamilton County Sheriff's Office
• November 1979-August 2006: Chattanooga Police Department
• 2006 to present: Hamilton County Sheriff's Office
Military history: U.S. Air Force, 1969-1970
Interests: Auto racing, fishing, boating
Source: Resume in Ron Parson's personnel file
Epperson and Parson both were given unpaid days off for violating policy about the security of computer passwords, according to the IA report.
There was no finding in the report that Parson cheated or that Epperson's assistance was improper.
Now Epperson says the wording of the report as it was used in the newspaper story is haunting him personally and professionally.
"They basically tried to imply that he [Parson] didn't do anything - that I did all of his assignments and he did nothing." That's "completely fictitious," he said.
But it's what people believe, he added.
"As of yesterday, I have inmates come up to me and when you start telling them to do something, [they say], 'I heard you cheated on a test.' I hear it daily," Epperson said. "The general perception is I did something I shouldn't have done ... because that's how he [Johnson] portrayed it."
Epperson said he hadn't seen the final internal affairs report and didn't know until the newspaper story was published how his evidence was portrayed in the report.
He has met with several superiors, including Branum and Hammond, and asked that the report be revised. They've denied his request to alter the initial report, but Hammond has allowed him to add his objections and corrections to the file.
The corrections officer believes the altered language was "intentional."
"I think it was a witchhunt," he said.
Administration officials all say that the internal affairs report is a "summary" of the interviews, not a verbatim transcript.
Parson wonders why the investigators wouldn't use the interview subjects' exact words.
"[The IA department is] not supposed to have an opinion. If you go in and give a taped statement, it should be on paper exactly as you said it," he said.
He said there's been discord between him and Branum and Johnson. Parson started his career at the department in 1973 but left until Billy Long was elected sheriff six years ago. Long is in prison after convictions for extortion, money laundering, drug possession and providing a gun to a felon.
Parson said two conversations that Epperson taped while asking higher-ups to correct the file convinced him he had enemies.
In one, Johnson tells Epperson, "You need to close this case. This was never about Ryan Epperson. You know where the media's attention was; it wasn't about you."
In the other, Administrative Services Director Don Gorman says, "If you were to surface it again, it may end up hurting Chief Parson, too. That's who they were initially after anyway, from what it seems."
Parson doesn't dispute that he violated policy by giving Epperson his computer log-in information and deserved his punishment.
But, he said, "They was going to hang me, no doubt about it, and they should have if I'd cheated, which I didn't.
"I think the whole thing stinks. They was going after me but there was nothing there, and now they want the whole thing to go away."
Gorman on Friday said he made a "bad choice of words."
He said he was trying to explain to Epperson that internal affairs was looking at Parson because the chief gave the jailer his computer password.
"That was the whole thing right there - there was a breach in the password. There was no other intent to prove that he cheated or anything."
Johnson said Friday he understood Epperson was worried that the case would hurt his career. He said he was trying to reassure the jailer that there would be no blow-back.
"Not that he should leave it alone. If he feels there is something wrong here, he should pursue it, and I have no objection to that."
He said there "has never been any agenda here, on anybody."
"IA is mandated and charged with conducting fair and impartial investigations. That's what the community and the city expect us to do, and that's what we've done here. It's just some people's failure to stand up and take responsibility for what they did," he said.
"The question here is, did [Epperson] assist Deputy Chief Parson in his command college work; the answer to that is yes. The extent is something only he and Chief Parson know."
Branum acknowledged "management style differences" with Parson but said, "I have never had a serious issue with any of the supervisors that hasn't been addressed head-on.
"If there's anything, it's not personality, it's some ethics conflicts, because some people don't think they need to be held accountable for anything," Branum said.
Hammond called Parson a longtime friend and noted that the deputy chief hasn't filed a formal grievance.
"I've looked at it [the report] and I can't see anything that would substantially change what was spoken," he said. "I don't plan to reopen the report. I don't plan to look into whether somebody was out to get him [Epperson] or Chief Parson.
"I have the utmost confidence in my chief deputy, Allen Branum, and also the captain over IA, and I have confidence in Chief Parson's ability to run the jail."
Asked about rumors that he might sit out the 2014 sheriff's race and that Branum, Parson or both might be interested, Hammond laughed.
"I do plan to run, if my health is there and the citizens will give me another shot at it," he said. "I think what we're dealing with here is mostly personality conflicts. It's the nature of the beast among the Type A personalities [in law enforcement]. If it gets to the point where it interferes with their jobs, I'd have to step in as sheriff and put a stop to it."