District attorney asks for investigation to review claims against Bradley County sheriff

Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson speaks with on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, in Cleveland, Tenn.
Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson speaks with on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, in Cleveland, Tenn.

The district attorney in Bradley County, Tenn., has asked a special prosecutor be named to review a complaint against Sheriff Eric Watson filed by a county commissioner over multiple issues, including whether the sheriff pulled strings to get an inmate with whom he allegedly had a personal relationship released from jail.

County Commissioner Dan Rawls, who has tussled with Watson's office for months over what he claims is improper and deceptive practices, said he handed over allegations and evidence to 10th Judicial District Attorney General Steve Crump's office, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office.

In a statement Thursday, Watson said he is cooperating with the investigation.

"Since my election, I have done everything in my power to make Bradley County safer and to improve our Sheriff's Office. When I ran, I said I wanted to return fiscal responsibility to the department and I have done so," Watson said.

"I have done nothing wrong. I have not betrayed my oath or the public trust in any way. I will cooperate fully with any investigation and will look forward to being cleared of any wrongdoing," he said. "My only agenda will be keeping the citizens of Bradley County safe."

photo Bradley County Commissioner Dan Rawls enumerates points of discussion during a conversation concerning state legislation that proposes to allow utility-based broadband providers to offers services beyond their footprint areas.
photo 10th Judicial District Attorney Steve Crump

Among other questions, Rawls asked the investigators to look at whether Watson's wife, Tenille Watson, is getting favorable treatment as a bail bondsman. Court records for March and April show Tenille Watson, who received her license in February, wrote more bail bonds by herself than the next-largest bonding agency did with three agents. Records also showed her boss, Cumberland Bail Bonds owner Andy Baggenstoss, increased his share of the Bradley County bonding business from less than a quarter in March-April of 2015 to more than a third a year later.

Rawls also questioned whether the Watsons, who are required to keep their finances separate because of her job, violated that rule when Tenille Watson signed the mortgage and deed on the couple's new home in April.

And Rawls wants investigators to look at Watson's use of taxpayer money, particularly on credit card and travel expenses. He also said he has turned over an audio file containing what he said is a direct threat by Watson against him.

Rawls was sharply critical of the Bradley sheriff's office earlier this year when the department sold its $130,000 surveillance van for $30,000. Watson said at the time the 2006 van was outdated and obsolete, but Rawls contended the equipment had been maintained and upgraded and the vehicle was worth much more.

"There are so many egregious things, when I look at the totality of the evidence I've been given and the first-hand statements from employees," Rawls said. "That's the pattern that I see here that's most disturbing, is that the rules don't apply to leadership."

The allegation regarding favoritism toward a female jail inmate has been detailed by multiple sources who spoke to the Times Free Press on condition of anonymity. The woman could not be reached for comment.

The newspaper obtained dozens of images of Facebook messages purportedly exchanged by Watson and the woman in the months before she was jailed in July 2015. His identity on the Facebook messages is listed as "Sheriff at Bradley County Sheriff's Office," and in one message, he gives her a cellphone number that matches his official sheriff's office cellphone.

In a December 2014 exchange, the woman posts a picture of herself in a scanty red brassiere, and Watson asks whether she needs to be warmed up. In January 2015, he tells her they should "hang out" and she says she'll take off work to go on a trip with him.

The images obtained by the Times Free Press continue, including a message at 5:48 p.m. July 6, the date of her arrest on a felony robbery charge, urgently asking him to call her.

County records show the woman was booked into the Bradley County Jail at 7:41 p.m. that day and released at 9:54 p.m., her bond posted by Cumberland Bail Bonds.

A note on the file states: "Received call from Sheriff Watson stating [the woman's] bond lowered to 1000 by Judge Randalph [sic] and there is a note on affidavit stating bond is 1000."

General Sessions Judge Sheridan Randolph remembered the case. He said the warrant originally called for no bond, but someone - he didn't remember a name - called that evening and asked him for a lesser amount. He said the caller described the woman as a confidential informant.

"Ordinarily I'd probably set her bond at $30,000 the next morning," Randolph said. "Why he would get so involved is unusual."

Rawls said his contacts at the Bradley County Sheriff's Office told him the woman "is not an informant, never was, never will be."

A few months later, records show, the woman was set free just four days into a separate 120-day sentence for violating probation.

The violation of probation charge, for a 2013 DUI, was triggered by the robbery arrest. The woman was taken into custody July 31 and was to be held without bond until her Oct. 12 Criminal Court date, records show.

But on Oct. 2, Cumberland Bail Bonds posted a $1,000 bond and the woman was freed.

Criminal Court Judge Sandra Donaghy said her records show she signed an order on Oct. 7, backdated to Oct. 2, lowering the bond.

Donaghy remembered she was hearing cases in McMinn County on Oct. 2.

"I don't lower bonds or set bonds willy-nilly, so somebody from the sheriff's office must have called me and explained to me reasons I thought were legitimate to let her out of the jail," Donaghy said.

Just a few days later, on Oct. 8, the woman was rearrested, this time on a domestic violence charge. On Nov. 20, Donaghy revoked her probation and sentenced her to 120 days. With pretrial jail credit, the woman had 39 days to serve.

But jail records show she was released just five days later. Sources in the sheriff's office said the woman was in a group of eight or 10 prisoners furloughed for four days over Thanksgiving, supposedly to ease overcrowding.

Rawls said he hopes more areas will be explored, and he believes some sheriff's department employees could illuminate the department's inner workings if they were assured their jobs were safe.

"There's many so many things, and if a thorough investigation is done, I think there'll be much more," he said.

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

District Attorney Steve Crump’s statement

On June 20, 2016, Bradley County Commissioner Dan Rawls submitted a written complaint to my office detailing a number of claims of wrongdoing by Sheriff Eric Watson.The announced policy of my office is that I do not consider anonymous complaints. This was the first written complaint submitted relating to Sheriff Watson since he took office. I have forwarded the written request to the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference for the appointment of a District Attorney Pro Tem to determine if any of the claims warrant further investigation.I have asked for this appointment because Sheriff Watson contributed to my campaign for District Attorney. Any time this office has a conflict of interest, we seek the appointment of a pro tem attorney to evaluate the merits of a complaint. This office has not conducted such an evaluation and will leave that to an impartial review by another District Attorney General.In addition to the conflict of interest, most District Attorneys seek the appointment of a pro tem attorney any time one of their sheriffs are the subject of a complaint. This is done to prevent impairment of the working relationships between offices. It is important to note that this office is making no judgment as to the merit of the claims. We are seeking a review that will provide impartiality and protect both the integrity of the evaluation and Sheriff Watson against any unfounded claims.Our office will continue to work closely with Sheriff Watson and his department to promote and protect public safety and justice for our community while this process is completed. We are fully confident that none of the claims will affect any pending case or investigation.