When Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson's wife, Tenille Watson, went to work as a bail bondsman in February, long-established bondsmen in the county were worried.
When word got around that Sheriff Watson took his wife along to a March 5 sobriety checkpoint in Charleston, Tenn. - and she then wrote the single largest number of bonds from that weekend's arrests among nine bonding companies - they were furious.
"We're all unhappy," said a longtime bondsman who didn't want to be identified for fear of retaliation. "If she can do that, why can't we ride with police officers?"
"I've got nothing against the sheriff's wife at all, but it's a conflict. All the booking agents will toss stuff to the sheriff's wife as a favor," said another established bondsman.
Beyond the appearance of favoritism, they say Tenille Watson's work as a bonding agent raises ethical and legal questions.
March 7 Bradley General Sessions docket (bonds written March 4-7)
A Veterans Bonding: 12 bondsMickel Hoback: 5Brad Parker: 3No name listed: 3James Roberts: 1Bam Bonding Co.Belinda Rogers: 3Bright’s BondingSophia Phillips: 1Carlos Bail BondingCarloes Jones: 3Cumberland Bail BondsTenille Watson: 9Jeff Chamberlin: 4East Tennessee BondingMichelle Bradford: 5Gary’s Bail Bonds1 (no name)Sanford and SonAndrew Muth: 1Wooden’s Bail BondsJeff Wooden: 2Source: Bradley Circuit Court Clerk’s office
Sheriff Watson says the couple have met all the legal requirements, and he believes someone with a personal agenda is trying to stir up the community.
Referring to his service in the Tennessee House of Representatives, Watson said, "Politics is really different here on the local level than the state level - they go after your jugular down here."
The sheriff believes most of the county's bondsmen are behind him.
Tenille Watson could not be reached Friday at the phone number listed on the Cumberland Bail Bonds website.
State law says sheriffs and deputies, among others, "shall not be bail bondsmen or agents of bail bondsmen or surety companies and shall not directly or indirectly receive any benefits from the execution of any bail bond "
A 2014 attorney general's opinion adds that the spouse of a law enforcement officer may not work as a bondsman under most circumstances because the publicly employed wife or husband could benefit indirectly from the spouse's job.
That opinion was delivered after Knoxville-based bonding firm Sanford and Son hired a woman whose husband was an assistant chief on the administrative side of a small police department.
"I personally, as an owner, would not hire the sheriff's wife," Sanford and Son owner Sean Sanford said. "You're just asking for trouble, even if there's no impropriety."
According to the attorney general's opinion, the only way to avoid a conflict would be for the couple to keep their finances completely separate. So she can't pay the property taxes on a jointly owned home or buy him a steak on his birthday; he can't pay for her car insurance or take her to the movies.
"It's possible in this day and age that two people can love each other, be husband and wife, and not commingle funds. It would be very difficult, but it could happen," said Joel H. Moseley Jr., general counsel for the Tennessee Association of Professional Bonding Agents.
On the other hand, Moseley said, commingling of funds "is a very easy case to make."
"I would say it's a pretty open-and-shut issue - if they show the sheriff has been benefiting, directly or indirectly, from the writing of a bail, that's a prohibited practice.
"You would think they would want to investigate, but a district attorney has all the discretion in the world to choose to investigate or not investigate," he said.
Tenth Judicial District Attorney Steve Crump said he would investigate if someone provides evidence of a conflict of interest or inappropriate activity. His department could take actions ranging from seeking an explanation from the bonding agency to asking that a special prosecutor be named, he said.
"We are cognizant that the public looks to us to be above conflicts of interest ourselves," Crump said.
At the same time, "my actions require the finding of probable cause," he said. "I am a criminal investigative agency, and it would be abhorrent for me to be picking into people's personal lives without some complaint."
He also suggested there would be no questions raised if Tenille Watson wrote bonds only outside Bradley County. Cumberland Bail Bonds operates in more than 20 counties in East and Middle Tennessee, according to its website.
Two people with direct knowledge told the Times Free Press potential conflict was raised with Criminal Court Judge Sandra Donaghy before she signed off on Tenille Watson becoming a bondsman for Cumberland Bail Bonds on Feb. 17.
That process involves a criminal background check, an application, eight hours of training, and a judge's permission.
The two sources said Donaghy was given a copy of the attorney general's opinion but didn't see it as a barrier for Tenille Watson's employment. Donaghy could not be reached for comment Friday.
Watson said he consulted with the state attorney general's office as well as Crump before Tenille Watson went to work for Cumberland. He said his wife set up a separate account for money she earns from writing bonds.
"It doesn't touch me. That's the first thing we did," he said.
Watson said at least two prior sheriffs and one current deputy have wives in the bonding business, but no questions have been raised about them. His wife has a history in the bonding business - her grandfather owned a bail bonds firm and her ex-husband is in the business, he said.
Cumberland Bail Bonds owner Andy Baggenstoss said his hiring of Tenille Watson complies with state law and she will be "an excellent asset" to his business.
"She met those requirements and exceeded the expectations in terms of her ethics and her personality - she's exciting, pleasant, respectful, ethical, and the sheriff is also ethical and aboveboard," Baggenstoss said. "We have followed all the rules and all the laws, and it's quite presumptuous for anyone to assume they would do anything unethical or immoral."
Baggenstoss has contributed to Eric Watson's political campaigns, giving $1,500 in Watson's 2012 House race and $1,000 to his 2014 sheriff's campaign.
In addition to his bail-bonds business, Baggenstoss also owns a firm that supplies ankle monitors. He said when Eric Watson was a state legislator, he supported important bills related to the monitoring industry.
"Any time my company and me can reduce recidivism, increase accountability and increase public safety, I'm in favor, and I'll support anyone else who feels that way," he said Friday.
Just days after Tenille Watson got her license, a sign appeared on a wooden fence outside the Bradley County Justice Center. Bright red letters on a shiny yellow background proclaimed: "Fence donated by Cumberland Bail Bonding Co. 472-HELP," along with a list of accepted credit cards.
Tennessee law says it is unprofessional conduct for a bondsman to solicit business "directly or indirectly, by active or passive means in any place where prisoners are confined or in any place immediately surrounding where prisoners are confined."
The sign was removed after a few days.
Also within days after Tenille Watson went to work for Cumberland, sources told the Times Free Press they saw the sheriff drive her in his county vehicle to the jail at least twice to write bonds. Sources with direct knowledge also said Sheriff Watson took his wife to the March 5 sobriety checkpoint on Lower River Road in Charleston, Tenn.
Sheriff Watson said those people are mistaken or misguided because he and his wife drive similar black SUVs.
"I don't transport her around when she makes bonds," he said.
As for the checkpoint, he said the couple were dining out when the officers at the scene began chasing a Meigs County man who evaded the traffic stop. He took her with him and they were there for several hours as a dog team searched for the fugitive, who eventually was caught.
Before joining Cumberland, Tenille Watson had a job at the Bradley County Fire Department.
After Eric Watson took office in September 2014, he hired Bradley County Fire Chief Troy Maney's son Cody as a corrections officer at the county jail.
At about the same time, Troy Maney hired Tenille Watson for $14.58 an hour as a part-time data entry clerk.
However, she didn't actually do any data entry and didn't have access to the county's system, the county attorney's office said when the Times Free Press asked Maney to produce her log-in records under the state's Open Records Act.
"Part-time employee Tenille Watson does not login to any Bradley County server and uses only Internet access and periodically email to conduct her job responsibilities," County Attorney Crystal Freiberg said in response to the open records request in December.
Maney said Tenille Watson's primary task was to research grant opportunities for the fire department. The county turned over a list of about 20 grants the department applied for during the first 12 months of her employment. The list did not say which grants she researched, and Freiberg said there was no comparable list for the prior year.
She was scheduled to work 29 hours a week but sources in the fire department said she frequently was not there.
In an earlier interview, Maney said he never heard complaints from within his department concerning Tenille Watson's work situation, although he said he was asked whether she would be in the office on occasion.
"The nature of her job allows her to work from different locations," Maney said in an interview. "She can justify her work hours."
Maney's son Cody, meanwhile, struggled in his corrections job, his personnel file shows. He was cited repeatedly for poor performance and bragged to co-workers about his political connections.
"He talks as if he is untouchable and that his father and Sheriff Watson will give him what he wants," a jail sergeant wrote in one report.
In another report in December 2014, just three months after he was hired, Lt. Ron Reddish recommended Maney be fired for insubordination and conduct unbecoming.
"Officer Cody Maney is a dangerous officer with the path he is on," Reddish wrote. "None of my officers feel safe and/or confident with his job abilities and [are] afraid that he is going to get either himself and/or them hurt in the process of his actions."
Maney resigned, but was rehired in July 2015 and continues to be employed at the jail.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at email@example.com or 423-757-6416.