An attorney has filed a complaint with Bradley County's district attorney and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation claiming the sheriff's office retaliated against a bail bonding agent who blew the whistle on the sheriff's wife, alleging she received preferential treatment.
Bonding agent Marce Holmquist said she was denied entry to the courts building and refused access granted to other agents after a high-level sheriff's officer falsely told security agents a judge had revoked her bonding authority.
Holmquist was the primary source for the Times Free Press' April 15 story about allegations that Sheriff Eric Watson's wife, Tenille, appeared to have access to inside information on arrests that contributed to her spectacular success as an agent for Cumberland Bail Bonds Inc.
Soon after, court security officers told Holmquist's co-worker, Jeffery Johnson, that her bonding privilege had been revoked on the order of Criminal Court Judge Sandra Donaghy. It's part of Donaghy's job to authorize and supervise bonding in the 10th Judicial District.
The officers told Johnson the issue involved a noncompete clause Holmquist had signed at her former job with East Tennessee Bonding Inc., a sister business to Cumberland that operates out of the same building. Holmquist was fired in March 2017 after questioning Tenille Watson's access and was out of work for a year. She recently started with Hope Bonding.
When she went to court on April 20, Holmquist said, security officers told her they were under orders to "treat her like a civilian." She was not allowed to carry her cellphone or other materials inside, couldn't walk past the metal detector and wasn't allowed to sit on the bench in court with other bonding agents.
She said officer Steve McCullom told her Capt. Keith Edwards, supervisor of judicial and support services, had passed the order to security staff that Donaghy had revoked Holmquist's bonding privilege.
Holmquist said she confirmed with the Criminal Court Clerk's office that there was no revocation motion or order on file from Donaghy.
On Monday, she said, a security officer denied her entry to the building altogether, saying Donaghy had suspended her employer's bonding privileges.
That was true. Donaghy told the paper on April 13 that Hope had written more bonds than it had capital to cover, so the company was temporarily suspended from writing bonds.
Sheriff's office spokesman James E. Bradford Jr. on Friday provided a copy of the suspension order, which took effect April 11.
"Our agency extends a courtesy to bonding agents of authorized bonding companies to bypass security in order to attend court," Bradford said in an email. He said Hope was still suspended on April 20, "which explains why she had to go through the security checkpoint."
But Holmquist said, and Johnson confirmed, that he was not hassled, turned away or denied privileges, despite the fact he works for the same company as Holmquist.
"They did not treat me any differently; my privileges as a bondsman were not in any way altered," Johnson said Friday.
Holmquist said, "I believe I was singled out exclusively for the article that came out on the 15th, because I hit a nerve."
Johnson felt the same.
"I couldn't explain it any other way. I don't see how this was all brought about in a legal, reasonable way — there's no other explanation that I know of."
That same Monday, Holmquist's boss met with Donaghy, straightened out the finances and the suspension was lifted.
Meanwhile ,her attorney, Tyler Weiss, of Loudon, Tenn., had made a trip on April 20 to Monroe County, where Donaghy was on the bench, and had a talk with her.
"I just asked her what was going on and she said, 'No, I never made that call and I've been in Monroe County all week," Weiss said.
He said Donaghy was "shocked, taken aback and upset." She called Edwards and McCullom and put them on speakerphone.
"She told them, "I've got an attorney here saying you're telling people I gave an order to remove [Holmquist's] bonding authority,'" Weiss said.
"They said 'No, you didn't say that [to us], but we were given an order by somebody else who said you said it,'" he added. But Edwards and McCullom wouldn't say who told them.
Donaghy said Friday she couldn't comment because the matter might come before her court at some point.
Weiss said he told the story to Drew Robinson, in the 10th Judicial District Attorney's Office, and to Mark Wilson, an agent with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Tenth District DA Steve Crump said Friday his staff is looking at the facts and trying to see if there are civil or criminal violations. He said he has not yet asked the TBI to investigate.
"I don't know if it rises to the level of official oppression or not," Crump said.
Under Tennessee law, official oppression is intentional mistreatment by a public employee, or if an employee "intentionally denies or impedes another in the exercise or enjoyment of any right, privilege, power or immunity."
"Obviously, anytime somebody is denied a government service where there may be a misuse of government authority, there's concern," Crump said. "We're just too early into this to know what the lay of the land is."
This wouldn't be the first time Watson's administration has been accused of using judicial authority for its own benefit.
In 2016, the Times Free Press reported the sheriff had intervened to get a bond lowered for a woman with whom he had a personal relationship. The woman called him right after her arrest in July 2015 on a felony robbery charge.
Court records showed he called General Sessions Judge Sheridan Randolph and got her bond set at $1,000. Randolph later said he would have set it at $30,000 on such a charge.
Records showed the woman was booked into the Bradley County Jail at 7:41 p.m. and released at 9:54 p.m., her bond posted by Cumberland.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.