Friends at the Walter Hill Country Club started calling me “any day now.”
That’s because every time they asked when I thought the sheriff would get indicted, I’d say, “Oh, any day now.” Well, that day arrived May 27, nearly 14 months after media broke stories about Sheriff Robert Arnold and Chief Administrative Deputy Joe Russell, as well as Arnold’s aunt and uncle, Judy and John Vanderveer of Marietta, Ga., being involved in a scheme to sell e-cigarettes to Rutherford County jail inmates through a company called JailCigs.
Roughly a year after the FBI and TBI raided the sheriff’s office and homes of Arnold, Russell and John Vanderveer, all three were indicted on 14 counts ranging from conspiracy and fraud to bribery, extortion and coercion of witnesses.
They collected more than $168,500 from Rutherford County alone, and Arnold, who already makes about $125,000 from his sheriff salary, slid more than $66,000 into his pocket.
Arnold and Russell, who have continued running the sheriff’s office and showing great contempt for anyone who would question them, surrendered to authorities that Friday morning at the federal courthouse in Nashville. They were handcuffed when they entered the courtroom for an initial hearing, which must have been pretty humiliating for a pair who’ve acted as if they’re above the law.
While a lot of people speculated nothing would ever come of the FBI-TBI investigation, which included looking at several other unapproved sheriff’s office contracts and agreements, the indictment proves how thorough federal authorities are when it comes to chasing down suspects. And when allegations involve law enforcement officers, they aren’t going to leave any stone unturned.
Now that the indictment’s been handed up, it remains to be seen whether Arnold will resign or stay in office and try to fight this. His credibility is shot with county commissioners, and Mayor Ernest Burgess and several other commissioners are calling for his resignation, along with some state legislators.
A group called Tennesseans Against Corruption has been threatening an ouster lawsuit against him for a year, but it wants county commissioners to have the county attorney start ouster proceedings. If they can, they should.
In interviews with TV news reporters when this story broke, Arnold denied making money, said Russell shouldn’t be involved and on and on. He told so many (alleged) lies he could hardly remember what he said.
The indictment says from December 2013 through April 2015, when the media uncovered this deal, Arnold made $66,790, Russell $52,234 and Vanderveer $49,545.
It’s good work if you can get it.
The indictment also says they misled people, never letting on who owned or ran the company, and that Arnold failed to report on his state ethics form in 2014 that he was drawing income from JailCigs. They also tried to persuade a person not named in the indictment to prevent information from getting to investigators.
They also had another company called JailSnacks.
But the focus of the investigation is on JailCigs, a situation in which they had a captive audience—literally—in selling e-cigarettes to inmates through family and friends for about $14 each. Russell even sent an email to local JailCigs customers telling them to vote for Arnold. Otherwise, the e-cigs could disappear, according to the indictment.
To be honest, this is great entrepreneurism, a really good idea. Unfortunately, it’s illegal to run it at the county jail if you’re the owner or investor, which is why they tried to cover it up.
From the book of Government 101, elected and appointed officials can’t benefit financially from their position, other than their regular salaries, etc.
This is corruption on its face. It’s also what happens when a political party puts a person in a position of authority knowing full well the person doesn’t deserve it and can’t handle it.
Arnold, a Republican, won the 2010 election against longtime Sheriff Truman Jones after the Rutherford County Republican Party held a caucus and pretty much said, “Who wants to run for sheriff?” He’d only served as a jailer and school resource officer, but he raised his hand anyway, and here we are six years later with a 14-count indictment and another example of a sheriff who thought he was above the law and got greedy.
Arnold can take comfort in the fact he isn’t the first sheriff in Tennessee history to be indicted. If only he and Russell had stuck with selling JailCigs to other jails, they’d be OK. But they wanted more and they wanted it now.
Indictment Side Notes
It takes a heap of gall for someone making about $70,000 a year, plus no telling how much from JailCigs, to file an affidavit asking a federal judge to appoint him an attorney. But that’s what Joe Russell did after his arrest.
Murfreesboro attorney Tommy Santel represented him during the investigation. But apparently Russell is nearly destitute and requested a public defender represent him as he tries to talk his way out of a 14-count indictment. Arnold’s uncle, John Vanderveer, did the same thing.
For those who’ve never hired an attorney, take my word: They’re expensive. No doubt Arnold is forking out a pretty penny to retain Tom Dundon from Neal & Harwell, one of the top defense firms in the nation.
In Russell’s case, though, we have a person who is not a law enforcement officer. He does little at the sheriff’s office but move money around at the whim of the sheriff to meet his budget needs. Email records show he ran JailCigs on sheriff’s office time, and for all we know he is still running it on the county dime but using a personal email account. He also got his real estate license so he could sell the house where his family lived next to Arnold on Osborne Lane, and now he’s pulled papers to build a monstrosity of a home in Lascassas, sources say.
Yet, he wants taxpayers to fund his defense.
In the words of the late, great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, “Goodness gracious sakes alive.”
U.S. attorneys are challenging the requests by Russell and Vanderveer. And Judge John Bryant told them they could wind up paying back any legal fees if the court finds they have the ability to pay.
It’s just hard to imagine how someone with a regular salary of $70,000 wouldn’t be able to afford an attorney. But if your wife, Nicole Lester, the former county elections administrator, lost a $92,000 salary for not showing up at work despite repeated requests, well, you probably don’t have the buying power you once did.
Which means you need to sell a whole lot more e-cigs.
Speaking of selling e-cigs, does anyone remember when Arnold got state Rep. Rick Womick to sponsor legislation last year allowing the sheriff’s office to take over the county workhouse?
Arnold said he could run the workhouse more efficiently, and more than likely his first move would have been to oust Superintendent Bernard Salandy.
But if you look a little deeper, that would have added 120 to 180 more JailCigs customers for Arnold and Russell. The 800 inmates at the jail just weren’t enough. That’s sheer capitalism. The company has to keep growing or it goes backwards.
Even when Arnold put Russell on administrative leave when all of this stuff broke last year, Russell was spotted working a JailCigs booth at a sheriffs conference.
Here’s one last thing to really irritate people: During the 2014 sheriff’s race, the Rutherford County Republican Party removed former sheriff’s Detective Ralph Mayercik from contention, saying he was not a bona fide Republican. Yet voting records showed his Republican credentials were stronger than Arnold’s. The only time Mayercik didn’t vote Republican was when he was supporting longtime Sheriff Truman Jones, a Democrat, who was his boss.
Republicans were so intent on keeping Arnold in power, they eliminated a person with more integrity and experience than the current sheriff ever dreamed of having.
Oh crap, one more thing. The federal indictment says $22,000 from JailCigs went into the “Elect Arnold” campaign in 2014. He probably used the money to buy or pay off the note on that delivery truck he uses for campaign appearances. The feds should look into that.
After investigating the arrests of 10 children ages 9–12 from Hobgood and other elementary schools in connection with an off-campus bullying incident, Murfreesboro Police Department took some bold steps: new Chief Karl Durr reassigned the arresting officer and suspended veteran Maj. Clyde Adkison. Police also promised to change policies and generally do a better job of handling situations involving the arrests of juveniles.
(Adkison’s crime is he failed to pass information about the arrest debacle up the chain of command, and he urged one school officer who was threatening to quit to calm down and wait through the weekend before doing anything rash. Clyde’s part in this mess, which included a long and confusing explanatory report from police, was minimal at best, and he appears to be a scapegoat for a jacked-up system of communication and command.)
While public outrage in the wake of the arrests focused on the handcuffing, the age of the children and the charge, basically failing to stop someone from picking on someone else, some of the kids arrested weren’t exactly shrinking violets.
Four of the boys were arrested previously and charged with sexually assaulting a young girl, according to a source I won’t name. Clearly, they need help and possibly separation from other students, but at least some of the boys were allowed to go back to school after their initial arrest.
Local school systems say they do their best to protect children and deal with these types of situations one at a time without using a blanket policy.
Of course, the kids should have their day in court, as is their constitutional right. Until someone is convicted of an off-campus crime, it’s difficult to single them out for expulsion or any other type of punishment. But they certainly need some type of monitoring.
Preferably such control would come from parents. Yet when the mother of one defendant is charged with beating up the victim’s mother, the whole situation is completely out of whack.
Our justice system is handling the matter. But, seriously, is the system set up to solve the problem? Not likely.
These people need help, and it’s not going to come from juvenile detention or the jail. Divine intervention is needed here.