Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson was charged Friday morning with six counts that he did “unlawfully, knowingly, and feloniously hold or use a certificate of title or certificate of …
Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson was charged Friday morning with six counts that he did “unlawfully, knowingly, and feloniously hold or use a certificate of title or certificate of registration, knowing the document to have been altered, forged or falsified,” after a Rutherford County judge signed off on findings reached by the Bradley County grand jury.
Each count represented a separate vehicle involved in the case.
Watson was arrested and booked by agents of the Tennessee Department of Revenue this morning in his office at the Justice Center.
He was released on a property bond of $30,000.
Watson had driven all night from a family vacation in Florida to be present as the charges were served.
Watson’s attorney, James Logan, said his client has waived arraignment and asked “for discovery to begin and for a speedy trial.”
“Sheriff Watson is on the job,” Logan told the Cleveland Daily Banner. “It has been said by his accusers justice needs to be done. Both I and Sheriff Watson agree on that point, and have faith in the justice system that will be the outcome of this matter.”
Watson released the following statement:
“For more than a year, I have confronted numerous accusations from some who desire to have more control over county government and the operations of the Sheriff’s Office. I have cooperated with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and responded to anyone who has requested information from me which related to the questions which have arisen.
“To my knowledge, I have not been questioned about the accusations which are contained in an indictment which I have not seen.
“There are two very important messages I want the employees of the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office and the people of Bradley County to know.
“1. The leadership team and every employee of the Sheriff’s Office will assist me as we continue to provide the best services possible to ensure the safety and property of all citizens and visitors.
“2. I will continue to cooperate with the proper authorities and respond appropriately to the allegations which have been made. I will waive arraignment, speedy trial and advise the court that I plea ‘Not Guilty’ to the accusations.”
According to information on the U.S. District Court website, a grand jury is not responsible for determining whether the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but only whether there is sufficient evidence of probable cause to justify bringing the accused to trial.
According to court documents, Watson’s charges stem from a case investigated by the Tennessee Motor Vehicle Commission concerning the sheriff’s side activity of selling used cars.
The TMVC eventually closed its case involving the issue of curbstoning, the practice of selling open-title cars on the side of the road.
A “letter of warning for potential violations” was sent to Watson while also stating that he was “properly licensed [as a salesperson] through September 2018.”
That letter also stated the TMVC had authorized a referral of the case to the Tennessee Department of Revenue to investigate questions of sales tax compliance.
Bills of sale obtained by the Cleveland Daily Banner at the time showed sales taxes were paid on the vehicles in question.
It was Wednesday when 4th District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn appeared before the grand jury with the results of his office’s investigation into a series of allegations made by Bradley County 6th District Commissioner Dan Rawls.
Dunn was appointed to the case after 10th District Attorney General Steve Crump recused himself from the investigation, citing Watson’s contribution to his 2014 campaign.
While Dunn’s report remains to be made public, the grand jury did not issue any findings of wrongdoing by Watson in his capacity as sheriff.
The grand jury used its powers of being able to recommend charges of its own volition, without the endorsement of the prosecutor.
That is known as a presentment, and that paperwork was assigned to Senior Judge Don Ash, a retired Circuit Court judge from Rutherford County. Ash has been designated as the judge for all trial purposes in Watson’s case.
Area judges, as is normal in a case such as this, recused themselves because of their normal close working relationship with the county sheriff.
Ash signed the paperwork on Thursday, triggering Friday’s series of events.
Watson issued a statement to the Banner in December concerning the TMVC inquiry stating, "I am not and have not been primarily engaged in the sale or offering to sell motor vehicles. Serving as sheriff is my primary occupation and I am on the job physically more than 70 hours per week. I am always immediately available to my staff.”
He also noted his family has been involved in the automotive and tire business for more than 35 years.
"I have not sold or offered for sale any motor vehicle without a properly endorsed certificate of title," Watson said in his statement at the time.
Tenth District Attorney General Steve Crump advised the Banner that Watson could remain in office until and unless he is found guilty of the charges.
“I recused myself in June of 2016 from any consideration of this matter, because Sheriff Watson contributed to my campaign,” Crump told the Banner.
“I am not aware of the specifics of the actions of the Bradley County grand jury, but I have great confidence in the criminal justice system that the matter will be resolved justly and fairly. My office will continue to work closely with the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office. Our focus wil be to continue to improve public safety and support the men and women of the BCSO’s outstanding efforts to keep Bradley Countians safe.”
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