The Avenue

The Many Lawsuits of Robert Arnold: Amidst Beyoncé Comments, Sheriff and County Face Another Legal Battle

My father used to tell about the time he picked up a hitchhiker while driving to Nashville. As they rode along, they talked about stupid things people do, and after a while, the man said, “Some people ain’t got good sense, but they cain’t hep it.”

That story came to mind in the aftermath of Sheriff Robert Arnold’s reported brush with a shooting at his home and comments he made the next day saying it might have been connected to law enforcement shooting incidents nationwide after Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance or her “Formation” video—or whatever.

Yes, what started out as a humdrum press conference at the sheriff’s office about the reported shooting, in which someone allegedly fired .22-caliber bullets toward his house, turned into a national story when he mentioned the famous singer and tried to make the connection with her act. National media are good at taking one little sentence and making blaring headlines of it. But there’s no denying he did say this stuff.

In the aftermath, numerous people said numerous things to me about this because any time something makes national news, well, people talk about it.

Some say Arnold’s comments were racist by trying to cast blame on a black entertainer. Others say they think he made up the shooting to get sympathy over a $20.5 million lawsuit filed against his office by the parents of a man nearly beaten to death at the jail. Still others say Rutherford County might have the only sheriff in Tennessee who can’t defend himself and his family, if he needs a deputy to park in the driveway all day long.

Seriously, someone could pose this question: Why did he send his family upstairs and just look out the window? Shouldn’t they all be down on the floor?

Arnold sent out a clarification the day of the press conference to clear up his words. In his defense, he did have a lame-brain statement from the National Sheriff’s Association as his basis: “The senseless killing of four law enforcement officers just this week—on the heels of the anti-police ‘entertainment’ at the Sunday Super Bowl halftime show—reminds us that the men and women in law enforcement take a solemn oath that includes putting their lives on the line every day to protect our citizens.”

Nobody is casting doubt on the danger law enforcement officers encounter each day. Then again, giving police carte blanche is a bad idea too, and mentioning Beyonce in the same breath as this purported Osborne Lane shooting is about like the last fishing tale at the Walter Hill Country Club—a bit of a stretch.

After his nonsensical comments, Arnold made further clarifications the next day on WGNS Radio, saying he wasn’t trying to offend anyone and, of course, calling the gunshots an “act of terrorism.”

Which brings to mind what someone else said, “Everybody knows thugs carry a .22.” Yes, a .22-caliber bullet can do damage, but they don’t make a lot of noise.

Here’s the real problem, though: At one point, Arnold said he “started thinking” about what might have caused someone to shoot up the air outside his house.

He should have stopped trying to think, because every time the wheels in his head start grinding Rutherford County gets into trouble.

Arnold thinks, for instance, he can fire anyone around him—without ramifications. And while, as an elected sheriff, he certainly has a lot of authority, the record shows he isn’t making the best decisions.

Sure, the jail might be clean, as Rutherford County commissioners recently pointed out after a tour. But Arnold sure is costing the county plenty in litigation.

– A lawsuit brought by former Detective Jim Tramel cost the county nearly $335,000 in a settlement and legal fees. Arnold let Tramel go because he expressed an interest in running for sheriff in 2013.

– Former sheriff’s office employee Joy Nelson reached a $307,500 settlement with the county in an age and disability complaint after she was fired in 2012.

– Former jail inmate Demario Harris Jr. sued the county for $300,000 after Arnold’s cousin Deputy James Vanderveer zapped him with pepper spray while he was confined (the spraying circulated on YouTube). TBI is investigating.

– Former Rutherford County jailer McKayla Black is suing the sheriff and county claiming he violated her constitutional rights by firing her in 2014—calling her a “cancer”—after she supported a different candidate for sheriff.

– The wife of a man found hanged in a holding room is suing the sheriff’s office and county after his recent death.

– The parents of beaten inmate Robert Johnson are seeking $20.5 million.

– Former Deputy Chief Virgil Gammon is seeking damages for his September 2015 firing, claiming the sheriff violated his state, federal and constitutional rights because he blew the whistle on Arnold’s illegal and unethical activity.

These cases all require legal work, as well, and everyone knows how much attorneys cost. They don’t do much free of charge, especially in government work, which means taxpayers are on the hook for this nonsense.

Gammon

Gammon

Jogging the Memory
For those Rip Van Winkles out there, Gammon is taking the brunt of the blame for Arnold’s dalliance in the e-cigarette industry. The sheriff supported his buddy, Deputy Chief of Administration Joe Russell, in a scheme to sell e-cigs to inmates at $12.95 a pop through a company called JailCigs, which was owned by Russell and Arnold’s uncle and aunt in Marietta, Ga., John and Judy Vanderveer. They’re also the parents of Deputy James Vanderveer, who is under TBI’s watchful eye.

It’s been about 11 months since the press popped the bubble on the JailCigs deal in which Russell was running the e-cigs operation out of the jail, marketing them across the country and even trying to get a contract with Corrections Corporation of America, e-mails show.

Gammon found out about the operation and reported it to the Tennessee Sheriffs Association, then to TBI, then was called to testify before a federal grand jury. He’s likely the key informant in a TBI-FBI investigation of Arnold and the sheriff’s office.

Arnold said in his recent WGNS interview he believes he will be “exonerated.” Maybe so.
But Murfreesboro attorney Terry Fann is representing Gammon in his whistleblower lawsuit, and Fann doesn’t take loser cases. He represented Nelson and Tramel, and he’s used to beating Arnold and Rutherford County in court.

Gammon’s lawsuit contends he tried to tell Arnold to cut out the JailCigs scheme, but the sheriff kept telling him Russell had it all under control. Then Gammon found out about several other unapproved, no-bid contracts the sheriff signed, and the whole thing spiraled from there.
Arnold put Russell on administrative leave with pay for four months, ultimately suspending him without pay for two weeks. Yet Gammon’s lawsuit states that when Russell testified in a deposition in the Joy Nelson case he gave false information on a separation notice submitted to the Tennessee Department of Labor, a clear violation of state law.

Yet, Arnold “laughed it off” and said Russell got away with it because the statute of limitations had run its course, according to the lawsuit.

Oh well, when your best friend and former next-door neighbor is in a sling, it’s OK to let them break the law and violate policy. But when someone is telling the TBI and feds about your e-cigs scheme, well, it pisses you off. Gammon, of course, was fired.

So was former Maj. Tommy Thompson, who found out Arnold made a “hit list” of people he thought revealed information about his illegal conduct to the media and authorities and was prepared to fire them, according to the lawsuit.

“If you are even considering this in the least, I feel compelled to go on the record that I strongly advise against any actions of this nature,” Thompson wrote in an email to Arnold, forwarded to the county attorney. Thompson also pointed out the law provides strict penalties for “taking adverse action against anyone classified as ‘whistleblowers.’”

Thompson, a longtime U.S. marshal and straight shooter, was unceremoniously fired Feb. 19 from his position as jail administrator. No doubt he is talking to Terry Fann.

Can you say cha-ching, boys and girls?

PCC is Done
For those who’ve been on probation for a misdemeanor in Rutherford County and felt the slings and arrows of Pathways Community Corrections (PCC), you can finally rejoice.

PCC is shutting down at the end of March.

Targeted in a federal lawsuit along with Rutherford County by low-income people who say PCC and the county extorted money from them by trapping them in a never-ending cycle of fines and fees, the company finally said it’s had enough.

Or, the massive health-care company, Molina, which bought PCC last year decided it doesn’t want to deal with the headaches of these federal lawsuits anymore.

Getting out of the business doesn’t guarantee PCC and Rutherford County will be able to crawl out from under the lawsuit. But Mayor Ernest Burgess clearly believes Rutherford County will be better off by starting its own probation service instead of hiring another private company that makes its money off charging fees to probationers.

For Burgess, a North Boulevard Church of Christ board member, it’s becoming a moral issue.

Burgess

Burgess

“When you’re dealing with people that have committed some crimes and we’re trying to help them and get them back on their feet, we have to do everything humanly possible to be a part of that positive process of making that happen somehow. It’s tough,” Burgess said.

Burgess told county commissioners recently he couldn’t—in good conscience—recommend hiring another private firm because he thinks profit motive drives the business rather than working with indigent probationers.

During a county Public Safety Committee meeting, Burgess almost sounded like he felt the county made a mistake by ever allowing PCC to run probation services here. Still, he said he doesn’t believe the county is on the “wrong side” of the case.

“But I don’t think we have an appropriate opportunity to extricate ourselves and prove ourselves if we don’t make a change here and try to set a different climate for (what) is taking place,” he said. “I think if we don’t do it I think it’s certainly going to impact the lawsuit. I think this gives us an opportunity to prove what we can do.”

Unfortunately, it took more than a decade—and a federal lawsuit—for anyone in county government to take this outlook. Meanwhile, thousands of people lost years of their lives stuck on probation, shelling out money to enrich a massive company.

But, heck, that’s private enterprise at its best, doing government’s job and making a killing.

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About the Author

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com

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1 Comment

  • Tim Daniel

    What about us fortunate to get off probation. What about the money they stole from us the years we were jailed over and over?

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