Judy Walton is a tough reporter. Her watchdog reporting often angers those she's reporting on.
Fortunately, she's also pretty thick-skinned.
Her most recent story, published Oct. 12, drew some choice words from Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson. He used words like "hatred" and "venom" when speaking about the story to another newspaper. He even said it was "the devil hitting the Sheriff's Office."
This is the same Watson who, when running for the job, made sure Walton knew about his opponent's stumbles and his own campaign tactics.
Walton's story showed how when Watson hired Arnold Botts to be his director of administration, he hired a man who:
• As Cleveland police chief, was the subject of a 1991 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe and hearings by the Bradley County grand jury. A member of that grand jury told Walton that the panel heard women testify that Botts used his position as police chief to coerce them into sex.
• Resigned in lieu of indictment and promised never to work in law enforcement again.
The details are in Botts' file at Tennessee's Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, which certifies law enforcement officers. Watson said he checked Botts' background through the TBI, FBI, Cleveland Police Department and other agencies, but he apparently didn't look at Botts' POST file.
Watson defended Botts when Walton asked him about the allegations, saying Botts admitted up front during his job interview he had "made some bad choices in the past" but saying he didn't know exactly what those were.
In an interview with the Cleveland Daily Banner, he elaborated further.
Watson didn't explain why he decided to hire Botts or why he didn't press for more details on Botts' bad choices. Instead, Watson chose to throw the word "Christianity" around, as if that absolves him from poor judgment and gives him a pass on explaining his decision to constituents and taxpayers.
"Apparently there are a pitiful few in our community who do not believe in the Christian tenant [sic] of forgiveness," Watson told the Cleveland paper.
I guess he's talking about Walton.
But are the religious views of Watson and Botts relevant? Or just an attempt to change the subject?
Did Watson just think that if he mentions Christianity enough times, and implies that the reporter is anti-Christian, people would not dare to question him further?
In the Cleveland paper's story, Watson said the word "Christian" four times, the word "Lord" once, the word "pray" once, and he spoke of sin and the devil and nonbelievers. He said the story was "the devil hitting the Sheriff's Office ... because of the baptism program at the Justice Center and all the Christian programs we initiated on day one."
He continued: "There are nonbelievers that live in this community as well as outside of the community, and they don't believe in what we do. But, this will not stop us from doing positive things to reach these inmates and try to change their lives."
Walton's story has nothing to do with a baptism program for inmates. Nothing. It has nothing to do with Watson's Christianity, or Botts' religion. It has nothing to do with the devil.
The story is about how Watson hired for a top law enforcement job someone who promised to never again serve in law enforcement in order to avoid prosecution. That bears discussion and scrutiny, and it's certainly newsworthy.
Instead of trying to obscure the issue by pitching incendiary rhetoric to Bible Belt voters, Watson should answer serious questions.
He should explain how it's possible that, with his years of experience, he's about the only person working in the Bradley County criminal justice system who didn't know the story behind the Botts resignation. And he should ask why Botts didn't disclose details of his past to Watson before accepting a high-profile, key position in the sheriff's administration.
It's a cheap ploy, smoke and mirrors. Just because this is the Bible Belt doesn't mean elected officials should not be accountable.
When Watson tries to say the story is about anything else, like an inmate baptism program or the devil's hand at work, all he's doing to creating a distraction.
It shouldn't work. The voters and residents of Bradley County deserve better. They deserve answers about his hiring practices, not his religious views.
Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.