Bradley County, Tenn., sheriff-elect moving to create transition team

Steve Lawson gives a thumbs up for the camera as he and wife Connie lead supporters on a victory march from the Museum Center at 5ive Points toward the Bradley County Courthouse after he defeated incumbent Sheriff Eric Watson on Tuesday, May 1, 2018 in Cleveland, Tenn.

Still aglow with his election win in Tuesday's Bradley County sheriff race, sheriff-elect Steve Lawson on Wednesday was already thinking about what needs to be done before he takes office in September.

Lawson defeated his former boss, Sheriff Eric Watson, by about 1,000 votes in the Republican primary, and he has no Democratic opponent in the Aug. 2 county general election.

photo Steve Lawson, left, and his wife Connie lead supporters on a victory march toward the Bradley County Courthouse after he defeated incumbent Sheriff Eric Watson on Tuesday, May 1, 2018, in Cleveland, Tenn.

He credited a strong team of campaign volunteers, who did everything from social media posts to standing on street corners waving at motorists, for the win.

"I think we ran a good campaign. I'm proud of all the people who helped me," Lawson said. He picked up significant endorsements, including all four living former sheriffs and the Cleveland, Tenn., police chief. And a family who gave Watson strong financial support in 2014 switched sides, funding a political action committee that supported Lawson and ran a series of ads attacking Watson as unfit and out of control.

Lawson said he expects to speak with Watson soon about beginning the transition, and moved to reassure current employees he's not "going in with a hatchet and start cutting people."

"If you want to work, you can work," he said.

His first task is to assemble a transition team that can recommend a command staff to run the jail, patrol, court security and other office functions.

"I want the best people for my command staff, people that will tell me the truth, not people who'll tell me how good I am," Lawson said.

photo A podium is set up at the front of the room at the Cleveland Country Club as people mingle during Eric Watson's election night party on Tuesday, May 1, 2018, in Cleveland, Tenn. Watson, the incumbent, would concede the race to challenger Steve Lawson.

And he wants to start talking soon with county commissioners about staffing and the budget.

The corrections budget, for instance, has 100 salaries but fewer than 70 people actually working in the jail. Understaffing creates dangers for both officers and inmates.

"We may have to move some of those back to the jail," Lawson said. "We've got to get better back there; that's one of my first priorities."

He also wants to focus on officer safety, making sure cars and equipment are what they should be. Deputies and correction salaries need improvement, he said.

Right now, "we're a training ground for other departments and we're losing people every day" to Cleveland, Collegedale and Polk County, Lawson said.

And he wants to develop four- and eight-year plans for staffing, training, equipment and goals to give to the commission, which funds the sheriff's office.

photo Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson speaks at a press conference at the sheriff's office on March 8, 2018.

Lawson said he is "humbled and honored" to win the sheriff's office on his third try, and he promised, "It's nothing I'll take lightly. I'll dedicate my whole time to it. I hope when I leave they'll all say, 'Under Steve Lawson it got better.'"

His defeated opponent did not respond to questions or requests for comment Tuesday night or Wednesday.

In television interviews, Watson blamed his loss on negative media and a Bradley County commissioner whose complaints triggered a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe.

He told WRCB-TV Channel 3 there were "several components" to his loss.

"You had help with the Chattanooga Times [Free Press] that's been on me for two or three years now with false allegations. You had Commissioner Dan Rawls throwing stuff out there, getting six state agencies involved as well as a federal agency, that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"There's people that believe some of that stuff, no matter if it's true, if it gets you on the front page or top headline of a story, there's a group of people that will believe that stuff."

The Times Free Press has published more than 50 stories since March 2016 on allegations against Watson, including:

» Being indicted on 12 felony counts of forgery for altering vehicle titles in his side job as a used-car salesman

» Using county resources and personnel to help his wife in her bail bonding job

» Taking felons out of the jail in civilian clothes and unshackled for field trips to church or a July 4 fireworks show attended by tens of thousands of people

» Inhumane conditions in the badly overcrowded county jail, including inmates sleeping on concrete floors with no access to toilets, showers or hygiene supplies

» Questionable financial transactions, including selling the county's $130,000 surveillance van for $20,000 to a Nashville bail bondsman, and a state comptroller audit revealing 146 instances of inadequate documentation for purchases made on the county credit card

» As many as 27 lawsuits against the department on issues from excessive force to wrongful death.

Watson has claimed on local television and in regional media the allegations are untrue.

But Times Free Press Editor and Director of Content Alison Gerber has said multiple times that Watson has never contacted the newspaper to contest the accuracy of any of the reports or to ask for any corrections.

Rawls on Wednesday chuckled when asked about Watson blaming him for multiple investigations.

"This is a perfect example. He doesn't accept responsibility for anything, but I do love the shout-out," Rawls said.

The Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance and the Department of Revenue investigated Watson's car sales, leading to the felony indictment. The comptroller's office uncovered the credit card misuse in an audit. The TBI investigated for 17 months before closing its case at the behest of a special prosecutor who also dismissed the forgery charges.

Rawls said he had no regrets for trying to bring what he called evidence of wrongdoing to the proper authorities, even though it may have cost him his commission seat.

He lost Tuesday to Tim Mason, a sheriff's office employee who runs the litter grant program that uses jail inmates to clean up the county's roadsides.

"I believe God puts you in position to do things," Rawls said. "When that's done, maybe you go on to something else. If you don't go on, maybe you don't get that next thing done."

Contact Judy Walton at or 423-757-6416.