Indictment of Sheriff Watson earns No. 2 spot

Top 10 2017 Newsmakers

By BRIAN GRAVES

Posted 12/30/17

The case of the state of Tennessee versus Sheriff Eric Watson was destined to make any Top 10 list of stories for the past year and, so it has been selected the Number 2 Newsmaker story of 2017 by the editors and staff writers of the Cleveland Daily Banner.

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Indictment of Sheriff Watson earns No. 2 spot

Top 10 2017 Newsmakers

Posted

The case of the state of Tennessee versus Sheriff Eric Watson was destined to make any Top 10 list of stories for the past year and, so it has been selected the Number 2 Newsmaker story of 2017 by the editors and staff writers of the Cleveland Daily Banner.

It was a story that started in 2016 as Commissioner Dan Rawls forwarded a series of allegations against Watson to 10th District Attorney General Steve Crump.

Because of how close the AG and the county sheriff worked together, Crump had Fourth District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn appointed as a pro tem.

The case was brought before the Bradley County grand jury by Dunn on July 18; however, agents representing the state Department of Revenue presented a separate set of allegation concerning the sheriff’s sale of six used vehicles.

Those six vehicles and questions about their titles caused the grand jury to hand down six presentments against Watson alleging 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.”

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 the 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.

Watson was arrested and booked by agents of the Tennessee Department of Revenue on July 20 in his office at the Justice Center.

The sheriff 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 waived arraignment and asked "for discovery to begin and for a speedy trial."

He was released on a property bond of $30,000, and returned to work as he is allowed to remain in office until or if a conviction is determined.

According to court documents, Watson's charges stemmed 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 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.

In August, Rawls began urging the County Commission to undertake a forensic audit of the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office.

The Commission later decided to have state auditors take an extra look at concerns presented to them by commissioners.

In December, the auditors reported “the allegations were baseless or incorrect.”

Logan filed a motion for the charges against Watson to be dismissed based on claims the wording of the charges appear to state two separate charges on each count.

If that were the case, according to Logan, jurors could come to differing determinations on each count allowing for a conviction without a unanimous jury decision.

The pending hearing on that motion delayed the originally scheduled Nov. 27 trial date.

But on Sept. 21, the grand jury revamped the six presentments it had previously found against the sheriff as members reformatted the charges from six counts to 12 counts.

There were 12 new charges, but they were replacing the former six and cover the same allegations.

Watson is now charged with six counts of "holding an altered, forged, or falsified title" and six more counts of "using an altered, forged, or falsified title."

In November, another motion for dismissal was filed as the judge wanted to further study the constitutional arguments filed by Logan.

Logan said the corrected presentments "only referred to certificates of title which had been issued by the State of Florida."

"In reviewing the superseding presentment, it was also ascertained that the superseding presentment did not otherwise identify 'the document,'" the filing read. “The presentments only charged the sheriff with altering the titles, not with any specific fraudulent use of those titles."

Ash had scheduled a special hearing for Nov. 23, but that was postponed.

"We were told the state would not be able to respond to our motion to dismiss for lack of constitutionality by that time," Logan said.

"We are disappointed concerning this delay that was made without consultation," Logan said. "Sheriff Watson has asked these charges be resolved as quickly as possible. He is ready and has always been prepared to proceed to whatever courtroom he is called, and defend himself from these charges."

The hearing was finally held Dec. 13, but on Dec. 21 Ash denied the motion for dismissal.

A jury trial is now slated for Jan. 22.

Watson has firmly denied the charges throughout the case.

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