BCSO forensic audit needed, despite costs

Posted 8/26/17

Even at the annoyance of using taxpayer dollars, a Bradley County Commission ad hoc committee should move ahead with scoping the cost and parameters of a forensic audit of the Bradley County …

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BCSO forensic audit needed, despite costs

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Even at the annoyance of using taxpayer dollars, a Bradley County Commission ad hoc committee should move ahead with scoping the cost and parameters of a forensic audit of the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office.

Furthermore, in future debate — whether at the full commission or committee level — county leaders should stop skirting the issue by failing to identify the BCSO by name.

In the words of Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis, who made the comment during a recent Finance Committee meeting, “I think everybody knows what the intent is.”

His were words well spoken.

Let’s call it what it is. Consideration of a forensic audit is not about countywide government. It is about how the BCSO conducts its fiscal affairs.

For too long now, Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson — and to some degree, his law enforcement agency — have been accused of wrongdoing, with alleged transgressions ranging from credit card abuse to unprofessional treatment of jail inmates to the unauthorized sale of surplus property and to unfair practices in doling out business to bail bondsmen, among others.

And individually, Watson still faces a Bradley County grand jury indictment on six felony counts of owning or using certificates of title that had been altered or forged. All are related to Watson’s side business in used-car sales which are not related to his service as an elected law enforcement officer.

A ruling on these indictments by appointed Judge Don Ash of Rutherford County has yet to be rendered.

Watson supporters charge political opponents with stirring the waters of public debate against the sheriff who faces a re-election bid in 2018, should he decide to seek another term.

The same crowd believes these antagonists are working in collusion with certain news media outlets, and other elected officials.

Bradley County Commissioner Dan Rawls, who recently lost a private court case against a BCSO patrolman involving a personal business transaction, has led the charge against the sheriff. However, the 6th District officeholder denies his interest is spurred by personal vendettas against Watson.

Rawls contends he is acting on behalf of the citizens of Bradley County, and that county commissioners have a fiduciary responsibility to hold the sheriff, and his department, accountable for all spending and professional conduct as it relates to taxpayer dollars and public service.

Still muddying the waters is an investigation of Watson and the BCSO by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation which has entered its 14th month. To date, TBI has not released any details of its work nor confirmed what exactly it is investigating.

In the meantime, close news media scrutiny — most of it negative — continues to erode public confidence in county law enforcement, and in Watson.

And that’s why the work of a forensic audit ad hoc committee — comprised of county attorney Crystal Freiberg and three Bradley County commissioners — should commence immediately once Commission Chairman Louie Alford announces its members, an act expected to take place Monday.

Although such an audit could reportedly cost $35,000 or perhaps more, at the expense of local taxpayers, Commissioner Tom Crye says he hopes to defer part of the bill by calling upon the resources of the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office. Negotiating those plans will be part of the ad hoc committee’s work.

Surely, some Bradley County residents will oppose such a local expenditure. Many already have, and in a recent Courthouse gathering they appealed to county commissioners to stop what they called a “witch hunt” against Watson.

Their point is well taken.

But here’s the caveat. If a forensic audit can do what proponents say it can do, then alleged fiscal wrongdoing within the Sheriff’s Office will be identified. And if such malfeasance is uncovered, then the next step seemingly would be obvious: criminal prosecution.

Likewise, if Watson and his department have not been involved in any wrongdoing then they have nothing to fear from an audit — forensic or otherwise.

And if such an audit lands no credible findings, Watson’s — and the BCSO’s — innocence should be presumed by those who have watchdogged his every move for the past two years.

In advance of Alford’s selections Monday, we respectfully offer two suggestions to the commission chairman.

One, choose your ad hoc committee members wisely, remembering how past — and present — adversarial relationships between individual commissioners and Watson can damage the legitimacy of the group’s work.

And two, expedite the process using whatever resources within your power as commission chairman.

This is no longer about personalities. It is about the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office, and the citizens of this community, being allowed to move forward.

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