After 16 months and continuing silence in the TBI probe of Sheriff Eric Watson, some Bradley County officials are right to question whether the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is stalling — leaving the county in a bad spot with a chief law enforcement officer already awaiting trial on 12 felony charges related to forging auto titles.
Watson clearly isn't of a mind to step down on his own, despite controversy after controversy — like the one created in early 2016 when Watson sold off the county's $130,000 surveillance van for $20,000 to a Nashville bail bondsman.
The former four-term Republican Tennessee state legislator and former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee also has faced a formal complaint of jail bullying. The TBI probe is said to be looking at persistent allegations of credit card misuse, more than $100,000 missing from the jail's food budget, and other problems in the sheriff's office.
Did we mention that Watson's wife is a bail bondsman who reportedly receives a disproportionate number of Bradley County jail bonds and gets help from her husband to reel in bond jumpers?
Imagine the consternation of county commissioners and other officials who have to worry about county liability for a rogue sheriff they can't fire when he chases down bond jumpers for his wife across state lines in his unmarked sheriff's vehicle with wife and another bonding agent in tow.
Two of those worried Bradley County commissioners who pushed most strongly for the investigation, along with people inside the department, say they're frustrated and cynical, fearing the TBI probe is being intentionally delayed because Watson is close to TBI Director Mark Gwyn.
"I think there needs to be some type of explanation as to what's going on here. It just seems this is being slow-walked for some reason," County Commissioner Dan Rawls told Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Judy Walton. Rawls began calling for an investigation into the sheriff's office in spring 2016.
Commissioner Thomas Crye said he is "disillusioned."
"We have now entered the next election process and it has left the citizens of Bradley County in limbo as to what the facts really are," Crye said.
Watson has denied any wrongdoing and has said the various allegations amount to a "witch hunt" brought by his political enemies.
TBI says its investigators are not stalling, and spokeswoman Susan Niland disputed any suggestion the case is being dragged out or influenced by friendship between Watson and Gwyn.
Yet several people inside and outside the sheriff's office who came forward with evidence say they've never been asked to give sworn statements. They say the TBI agent who took over the case when the first agent retired six months ago has never contacted them.
In August, commissioners became so frustrated they voted to seek a forensic audit of the sheriff's office to be conducted by the Tennessee Comptroller's Office, even if it costs more than the normal yearly audits. A spokesman for the comptroller's office said Thursday that forensic audit is expected to be released before the end of the month.
Bradley County commissioners — and more importantly, Bradley County residents — deserve answers, not excuses, from the TBI. And they deserved those answers long before now.