A political action committee says Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson put the public in danger when he took a group of state felons, in civilian clothes and apparently unguarded, to a church service last year.
In a Facebook post after the May 21, 2017, visit to Council Baptist Church, Watson talked about how the "former inmates" had changed their lives because of programs in the Bradley County Jail.
Photos showed 10 men speaking to and mingling with the congregation, standing in the choir and interacting with children.
But nine of those men weren't "former" inmates, the Tennessee Department of Correction confirmed Wednesday. They were all state prisoners, serving sentences in the Bradley jail. Among them, their convictions included vehicular homicide, selling drugs, theft and violating probation on a variety of crimes. One of them was on the Bradley County Top Ten most-wanted list at one point.
The tenth man was a former inmate, records show.
The Facebook post shows the men in street clothes, with no sign of restraints or shackles, and the pictures didn't show any deputies on guard in the church.
The PAC, Christians for Accountable Leadership [CAL], is releasing a video today criticizing the 2017 event.
"This is yet another example of Sheriff Watson's poor judgment as he chases his blind ambition at the expense of the safety of Bradley County citizens," spokesman Josh Standifer said via email Wednesday.
"As an organization, Christians for Accountable Leadership fully supports and recommends the use of Christian-based programs to rehabilitate inmates," Standifer said in the statement. "However, misleading and endangering the public will not be tolerated by the citizens of Bradley County or [the PAC]."
Watson did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday on why the inmates were in civilian clothes, whether he made any security arrangements or if the field trip violated sheriff's office or TDOC policies for handling prisoners.
Sheriff's office spokesman James Bradford said in an email that "it is common for prisoners, who are TRUSTEES, to be taken to public events with supervision." He didn't say whether the state felons were in the trusty program, which allows inmates who have received permission to work outside the jail.
The Times Free Press could not contact anyone with Watson's re-election campaign because contact information is not listed on campaign paperwork, and the sheriff has not responded to a request to provide campaign contact information.
The Tennessee Department of Correction did not reply to a formal request for comment. But spokesman Robert Reburn, who confirmed the prisoners' identities and sentences for the Times Free Press on Wednesday, said he couldn't think of any circumstances in which the department would allow felons out of prison, in civilian garb and unsecured. He said TDOC expects local jails to follow its policies when handling state inmates.
Standifer's company, M2politics, founded the PAC with some local citizens, he said. The new political action committee is cutting its teeth on the Bradley County sheriff's race, "but we're going to be involved in other races as well."
Watson is seeking a second term and is being challenged in the Republican primary by Steve Lawson, former captain over the Criminal Investigations Division.
Standifer said that CAL receives information and support from many current and former sheriff's office employees, but it's not funded by or affiliated with the Lawson campaign.
Christians for Accountable Leadership put up a social media page last week called the "Bradley County Truth Project," which it describes as an "exposé" of Watson's tenure. The site links to various media reports about controversies that have embroiled the sheriff and his department in recent years.
The PAC's initial funding is coming from investors, but Standifer said he hopes by the end of the week to have a way for the public to donate. He said many current and former sheriff's office employees have shown support.
"We started getting Facebook messages and phone calls from people who want to be heard. ... People felt they don't have a voice, because it's being suppressed or they're afraid to come forward. It's an avenue for them."
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-767-6416.