Letter accuses Bradley County sheriff of mismanagement, misuse of funds

Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson speaks to the media in this file photo.

Dissent and unrest among deputies and corrections officers in the Bradley County Sheriff's Office bubbled to the surface Monday in a unsigned letter from an employee accusing Sheriff Eric Watson of mismanagement and misuse of funds.

Among other allegations, the anonymous writer said Watson is moving employees into the understaffed jail to "doctor up" the books ahead of a Dec. 7 re-inspection by the Tennessee Corrections Institute. The TCI has said the Bradley County Jail could lose its certification if staffing and maintenance issues aren't fixed by then.

The letter also alleges Watson forged employees' names on meal receipts during a law enforcement trip, and that he has paid sheriff's office employees to go pick up cars Watson bought for himself. It questions why an aide who helped supervise inmate workers at the county garage was replaced by Watson's sister, who sources told the Times Free Press is listed as the garage's bookkeeper.

Multiple sources have told the Times Free Press that at least some of those allegations are included in an ongoing investigation of the department by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

The letter was distributed to Bradley County commissioners by Commissioner Dan Rawls, who said the veteran employee gave him the letter and asked him to give it to the others.

"It's a very dangerous situation, because it has destroyed the morale of the sheriff's office," Rawls said.

Watson did not return a text and email seeking comment Monday afternoon.

Some commissioners said Monday they hadn't yet seen the letter, which Rawls said he placed in their mailboxes. Several said they were skeptical of anonymous letters and noted that they believed some of the issues raised are in the TBI's hands.

The writer said the jail is supposed to have 92 officers but had only 64 until a few days ago, when four employees were moved from other jobs to the jail "to 'doctor up' the books on personnel for the coming jail inspection."

"Number #1, you are putting in danger all the corrections officers working inside the jail with that low of a staff number not including the inmates. (Remember, 3 inmates have died in our jail in a year's time.) Could this be related to the low number of staff on hand?" the letter states.

Other sources have told the Times Free Press a dozen or more sheriff's office employees have been moved from the fugitive/transport unit, the garage and other positions to the jail.

Commissioner Jeff Yarber, chairman of the law enforcement committee, said that issue came up at a land committee meeting Monday. Though he had not yet read the letter, Yarber said, jail understaffing didn't start with Watson.

Yarber said former sheriffs Tim Gobble and Jim Ruth "started moving people out and putting them in specialized positions. I think he legitimately was moving it back to get as close to 92 as possible so we don't get dinged on that."

People who've been transferred back to the jail could be aggrieved and unhappy, he said.

The anonymous writer claimed to have supported Watson's election bid, but now regrets it.

"Please, all I ask is for the ladies and gentlemen to open your eyes and put a stop to this before it gets to [sic] far out of hand," the letter stated.

Yarber and other commissioners said they don't put much stock in anonymous letters, although some acknowledged an employee could fear retaliation.

Commissioner Thomas Crye said an unsigned letter "raises questions," but added, "all the points it covers I, along with other commissioners, have previously been made aware of and probably are points that are part of the ongoing investigation."

Commissioner Mark Hall said he supports Watson.

"I think he's doing a great job. I think any elected official or anyone in that position is going to make some mistakes along the way. I don't think there's anything malicious about Eric."

Yarber said he hopes the investigation is finished soon.

"That's got to be a tough cloud to work under. I know it's demoralizing," he said.

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