Watson charges dropped

DA Dunn says he won’t pursue case further

By BRIAN GRAVES Staff Writer
Posted 1/12/18

The case of the state of Tennessee v. Thomas Eric Watson is closed.After more than two years of allegations, charges and investigations, the sheriff of Bradley County saw 12 felony counts of using …

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Watson charges dropped

DA Dunn says he won’t pursue case further

Posted

The case of the state of Tennessee v. Thomas Eric Watson is closed.

After more than two years of allegations, charges and investigations, the sheriff of Bradley County saw 12 felony counts of using and holding automobile titles which had been altered or forged dropped by the District Attorney General who had been assigned to oversee the case.

Fourth District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn, who was appointed District Attorney Pro Tem on July 1, 2016, announced his decision in a press release Thursday morning.

Dunn noted both the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the state’s Department of Revenue began their investigations into Watson’s actions at that time.

 TBI’s search is thought to have involved, and it has never been denied, allegations brought against Watson to the state investigators by Bradley County Commissioner Dan Rawls. The Department of Revenue’s parameters were based on the reporting of a Chattanooga newspaper that made the allegations concerning Watson’s buying and selling, as an individual, of used cars.

The decision of the Bradley County grand jury in July to offer a presentment—charges made without the prompting of a prosecutor — on only the car title allegations suggested the allegations by Rawls had been dismissed.

There were never any charges filed against Watson alleging any wrongdoing in his official capacity as sheriff.

However, the case made on behalf of the Department of Revenue apparently gave grand jurors reason to believe there might be the potential of criminal activity. That would have caused them to decide to levy the charges against Watson.

Dunn said in his statement that  information presented to the grand jury ended up not being the complete story.

“The crux of the State’s case revolved around the State’s contention that Sheriff Watson, through his pursuit of the sale of automobiles purchased in Florida and brought to Tennessee for sale, made alterations to the titles of these automobiles and failed to pay certain fees and taxes required by law for the sale of automobiles purchased out of state,” Dunn wrote.

“On Dec. 29, 2017, counsel for Sheriff Watson provided copies of certain documents evidencing the payment of the aforementioned taxes and fees on Dec. 13, 2016, to my office,” he continued. “Only yesterday was my office able to verify the authenticity of the provided records and since they were not in my office’s possession at any time prior to Dec. 29, 2017, those documents were not presented to the Bradley County grand jury.”

Dunn also noted the Office of the Comptroller, which was requested by some Bradley County commissioners to take a “deeper look” into certain concerns and allegations about the sheriff’s office finances they forwarded to that office, “made no findings of any discrepancies.”

That report, issued in early December, found those issues forwarded to them by commissioners as “baseless or incorrect” after 200 hours of study by state auditors.

“After conferring with my staff and searching my own conscience, I will not proceed further with this case,” Dunn concluded. “Even though there may be technical violations of the law, the spirit of the law seeks to punish fraudulent conduct that deprives the State of Tennessee of its lawful taxes and fees and since Sheriff Watson rectified this failure prior to the making of the presentment, this case will be closed with a dismissal of the case on all counts.”

In other words, whatever Watson may have done wrong, there is no proof there was intent to deliberately defraud the state and the state records show Watson had, in fact, paid the state its due — making right any errors — long before any allegations of wrongdoing were presented to the grand jury.

Watson’s legal counsel, James Logan, told the Cleveland Daily Banner Thursday afternoon, he remains puzzled as to how the case was not dropped sooner.

Logan said the sheriff has fully cooperated with all of the investigations over the last 18 months.

“To say the sheriff is pleased with the results announced by General Dunn would be an understatement,” Logan said. “He was very moved when I told him the news. He has held complete confidence our justice system would work.”

“The results of the Motor Vehicle Division of the Department of Safety were that Mr. Watson had not violated the law. The case was referred to the Department of Revenue. The Department of Revenue’s investigation was based upon the belief Mr. Watson had not paid taxes which were applicable to the use and sales of the motor vehicles in the state of Tennessee,” he explained. “There is a difference between the tax rate in Florida and Tennessee. We were able to submit to General Dunn’s office copies of the immediate payments which had been made when Mr. Watson brought the vehicles to Tennessee and he submitted the purchase records from the state of Florida and promptly paid the difference between the sales taxes applicable to both states and, he paid the tax on the sales commission which was charged by the internet operator.”

Logan also said investigators were provided information “which showed that accusations of improper use of manpower were not true.”

“The Comptroller’s office, in their words, said there was ‘no merit to those allegations.’” he added.

Logan said it was difficult to understand the underlying basis of the charges which were made “because the records are public records.”

“Every tax applicable to the purchase and sale of the motor vehicles had been paid by Sheriff Watson,” he said, noting the specific taxes and fees in question were paid by the dealership — Best Buy Auto Sales — where Watson was a qualified automobile salesmen. Those are transmitted electronically to the state.

“For whatever reason, these allegations were made without consideration of the type of documents which were involved,” Logan said. “General Dunn’s statement is kind and consistent with the duty and responsibility of the district attorney to not prosecute cases for which the evidence is not available to the state sufficient enough for a conviction to arise.”

Logan added that Dunn’s office “worked diligently and vigorously to support the criminal prosecution and reacted appropriately when we sent the confirmatory information that the sales taxes on both sides of the transaction had been paid.”

“It is a distinct privilege and an awesome responsibility to represent public officials accused of misconduct,” Logan said. “It is a greater onus to represent a public official when you know they are accused of a crime they did not commit. The criminal justice system did work.”

He said the time has come for “a healing to take place in our community.”

“Accusations of misconduct against elected public officials in our community have not been accurate,” Logan said. “The time has come for us to recognize the trust we have in our public officials is almost always a deserved trust. Rumors and innuendo should not be given the status of a challenge until there is significant evidence of guilt.”

Bradley County Commission Vice Chairman Jeff Yarber, who also chairs the Law Enforcement Committee, said he was glad there was finally a resolution.

“As I have said from day one, my job as Law Enforcement chairman is to look out for the men and women of the sheriff’s office and the citizens of Bradley County,” Yarber told the Banner. “Now the focus can be on the great job the deputies and staff there do in serving all of us.”

The Banner sent a request to Rawls for comment, but has yet to receive a response. 

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