NASHVILLE - Former Bradley County Sheriff Tim Gobble is among three finalists to be considered by Gov. Bill Haslam as the new director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
The TBI Nomination Commission voted Tuesday to forward the names of Gobble, current TBI Deputy Director Jason Locke and Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch to the governor to replace current TBI Director Mark Gwyn, who is stepping down next month.
The five-man commission, chaired by Jerry Estes, executive director of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference and a former prosecutor from Athens, spent some 5 1/2 hours hearing presentations and questioning the nine remaining candidates for the post. Forty-four persons had applied.
All the remaining candidates touted their law enforcement backgrounds, achievements and leadership abilities, while many also discussed their experience with budgets.
But it was clear from commissioners' statements and questions that in addition to those qualities, they were also interested in other strengths.
Chief among them was independence. Would the candidates be able to maintain the agency's independence from political interference while working cooperatively with local law enforcement and prosecutors, they asked.
"It's difficult at times to keep that independence," Jack Vaughn, a Kingsport attorney, told Gobble. "Are you willing to stand up and say no to the governor or someone like that to keep this independence?"
Replying that he would, Gobble, a former U.S. Secret Service special agent and currently a Tennessee Board of Paroles member, said, "I support the structure of the TBI that's been created and the legislative intent of making it independent and would support that and stand up for that as appropriate."
He added he does think "it is important that any TBI director work closely with the legislature and the governor's office and others in order to have good open communications."
Addressing the same subject later, TBI Deputy Director Locke said the TBI sometimes can go too far and "isolate" itself. The agency needs to expand its "relationships" and find ways to work with other state officials, "yet maintain that independence so we can never be questioned. If we have lost that aspect [independence], we have lost everything."
The search for a new TBI director comes following Gwyn's decision earlier this year to step down two years into his third six-year term. That was on the heels of a critical state Comptroller's audit. Among other things, it showed the agency dipped deeply into agency reserves to help offset Haslam administration directives that state agencies slash spending.
Under Gwyn, the agency made major strides in new areas such as human trafficking. But the agency has also seen a huge backlog of crime-scene evidence from local law enforcement in the agency's laboratories. The candidates offered a number of potential solutions to that and other problems.
"I do think the TBI was put in a situation because of the funding process," Estes said. He noted governors and lawmakers need to be reminded of the agency's core mission of aiding local law enforcement and district attorneys general when they want to add new responsibilities.
Estes also noted the importance of the agency's independence. Following the late 1970s scandals under Gov. Ray Blanton's administration, the TBI, then known as the Department of Safety division, was spun out into an independent agency.
The five-member panel made its decision on the first ballot. Locke received five votes while Gobble and Rausch received three votes.
David Jolley, a former TBI agent and director of the Tennessee Valley Authority Police who was recently confirmed by the U.S. Senate as U.S. Marshal for the Eastern District of Tennessee, received two votes.
Richard Moore, a current assistant TBI director who is in charge of the training division, received one vote, as did Edward Reinhold, a current deputy assistant director with the FBI who heads the agency's Critical Incident Response Group.
Reinhold served several years as the FBI's special agent in the Eastern District of Tennessee. He played a key role in the investigation of the July 2016 attack in Chattanooga by Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, which left five U.S. military service members dead.
Some things didn't come up in the nominating panel's questions.
For example, the Times Free Press has reported in the past that Gobble resigned as East Ridge city manager under pressure from East Ridge after controversies about hiring an unqualified friend for a position and disciplining city court clerks for mishandling a case involving his daughter.
Nashville's WTVF-TV reported earlier this year that Locke's son, Hunter, beat out applicants for a TBI special agent post despite having no experience.
Meanwhile, The Tennessean reported in 2016 that records showed Rausch had made "courtesy calls" to then-Tennessee football coach Butch Jones to alert him when players were under criminal investigation. The practice was halted.
Earlier this month, Haslam discussed his ideas about what he wants to see in a new TBI director.
"My view is you have to pick a really strong leader because you want the TBI to be independent," he said. "Once the governor selects them, then in my view the governor should be hands off from the agency. So you need a really strong leader."
The new director should be "somebody who has the respect of law enforcement officials from across the state because they'll interface - and then they need to manage a big budget. And it's one they sort of manage by themselves because, again, the governor doesn't provide them oversight."
Moreover, Haslam said he wants a "law enforcement professional, well respected and who has the ability to manage an operation as big as TBI."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.