Apparently the old saying holds true: there is no honor among thieves—or at least alleged thieves.
The day Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold, Chief Administrative Deputy Joe Russell, and Arnold’s uncle, John Vanderveer, surrendered to federal authorities on a 14-count indictment charging them with profiting from illicit e-cigarette sales to Rutherford County jail inmates, the sheriff pulled a quick one.
After their court hearing, as they left the building, Russell went through one of only two public entrances at the federal courthouse, while Arnold slipped out a back door not accessible for public use.
One could surmise he used his buddy as a decoy—even hung him out to dry.
As a result, Russell had to walk in front of a host of TV photographers who were waiting outside the building’s 9th Avenue door. Arnold, on the other hand, used a loading dock door on the back side of the building to exit and walk down an alley. By the time TV photographers recognized him they got only a couple of seconds of footage before Arnold jumped in an SUV and vacated.
One of the female TV reporters said he told her to watch out, implying she could be run over by the truck.
While he thought he was being tricky, Arnold’s getaway might have caused a security breach. The Federal Protective Service, which is a part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, allows the general public to use only two doors at the federal building: the one on Broadway and the one on 9th Avenue.
Department of Justice spokesman David Boling had told reporters no special exit would be allowed for Arnold. So when Arnold sneaked out, in a way he made Boling look like a liar, which would irritate anyone.
“Unequivocally, no favor was done for anybody as far as the Department of Justice was concerned,” Boling said recently when asked about the incident. “We would not go there, no matter who it was.”
Think about it. If every federal defendant used that door, the feds wouldn’t know who was coming and going. Such irresponsible behavior could cause a serious security problem. But when you think you’re above the law, you don’t really care what door you use, as long as it suits your purposes.
It must be noted, too, that the vehicle equipped with government plates, a Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office SUV, was used to pick up Arnold, and sources say Maj. Terry McBurney, who heads up the warrants division, was driving. Channel 4 News backed that up with a report.
So not only is Arnold accused of setting up and investing in an e-cigarettes business and profiting from local jail inmates, making more than $66,600, even after being indicted he continued using Rutherford County’s taxpayers to fund his trip to federal court.
Taxpayers provided the gas, the vehicle and the driver for Arnold’s Nashville adventure that day, although since he was handcuffed and shackled it probably wasn’t as enjoyable as the extradition trips he’s taken to Alaska, San Francisco and Seattle.
It’s little wonder, then, that many county commissioners didn’t want to provide the funds for 19 new deputy positions next fiscal year. They don’t trust Arnold to spend the money properly.
And while Arnold has accused county commissioners of playing politics with the budget to deny his personnel requests, the blame lies with him.
When elected leaders and the public lose confidence in the county’s top law enforcement officer, they can’t just keep funneling money to his office to pay for more officers. According to the indictment, Russell was pretty much running JailCigs, the company he co-owned with Vanderveer, from the sheriff’s office and using jailers to deliver e-cigarettes to inmates and monitor their use.
When inmates were booked into jail they were given a sheet of paper showing them how to gain access to JailCigs, which could be done only by going to the company website and making a purchase through family and friends. This term has been beaten to death over the last year, but it really was a “captive audience.” They couldn’t buy from anyone else, and no other vendor got to bid.
No wonder so many former Arnold backers dropped their support of Arnold like a bad habit—sort of like quitting smoking cold turkey.
Legislative Effort to Allow a Recall
State Sen. Bill Ketron, who called for Arnold’s resignation immediately after the indictment, is prepared to look into legislation giving voters the ability to recall a constitutional officer such as the sheriff, county clerk or register of deeds, those positions set up by the state Constitution. Under existing law, a constitutional officer can be removed only through an ouster suit, felony or election loss.
Ketron says the measure should apply to all of the constitutional officers because if they were to be charged with a heinous crime such as murder, rape or child molestation, they couldn’t be removed from office until ousted, convicted or voted out.
“If people have lost trust in any of our constitutional officers, there needs to be some provision to protect the citizens and let them have some say on it, just like wine in grocery stores, let them decide,” Ketron said.
Such a measure could require a large number of voter signatures to put a recall vote on the ballot. If such a process were in place, an Arnold recall could have been put on the ballot by August or November. As it is, his term runs out in September 2018.
An Aug. 2 trial date is set for him and his co-defendants, but Russell’s attorney is already trying to push it back. Word has it the Department of Justice has put together a massive amount of evidence—does anyone know what a terrabyte is? It’s a unit of information equal to one million million, and the computer file is said to be at least that big. So it wouldn’t be surprising to see the trial pushed back.
Ketron acknowledges Arnold has a right to a fair trial. But even if Arnold is found innocent, if the voters hold no trust in him and want to recall the sheriff by gathering enough signatures to hold a referendum, “then the citizen electorate should have that opportunity to do so,” Ketron said.
If Ketron sponsors such a bill, he’s likely to run smack dab into the sheriffs’ association and other lobbyist organizations for elected county officials. But it’s about time Tennessee adopted a method for booting questionable critters out of office. After all, Arnold isn’t the first sheriff in Tennessee to be indicted.
Good for the Gander
A funny thing happened recently amid the nine-person race for a fourth General Sessions judgeship created in Rutherford County.
Election Commission Chairman Ransom Jones and his wife, Wren, held a soirée at their Lascassas home to raise money for the campaign of Ben Bennett, a local attorney who used to work at the sheriff’s office.
This isn’t a reflection on Bennett. But two years ago, when Nicole Lester (wife of indicted sheriff’s administrator Joe Russell) was the election administrator, Jones said, “It probably doesn’t look good,” when asked whether Lester should have several election signs in her yard. She had three.
Now that Jones has a Bennett sign in his yard, he says neutrality should apply only to election office employees, not to election commissioners.
“Absolutely not,” he says, when asked if he feels he has a conflict of interest.
In fact, Jones points out election commissions are made up of political activists, people who’ve been involved in campaigns. They are also partisan appointments.
“There is nothing about election commissions, or has been, that is neutral,” Jones says
He is correct.
According to the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office, which oversees the Tennessee Division of Elections, the only restriction for county election commissioners is that they may not serve as a candidate’s campaign manager or treasurer.
In addition, the makeup of the commissions, whether they are controlled by Republicans or Democrats, depends on the majority in the General Assembly. Democrats held sway here for many, many decades until Republicans wrested control of the House of Representatives from the Democrats about six years ago.
When change came to the local election commission, the crap hit the fan. They booted longtime Democrat Hooper Penuel as election administrator. Former commissioner Chairman Tom Walker inserted himself as election administrator but then resigned. Then some of the commissioners left, and finally Jones was appointed to serve and became chairman.
Since then, the commission has worked in unison, even voting unanimously to fire Lester because she just wouldn’t report to work at the office as Jones requested.
So the county election commission is running smoothly. No more hordes of hell raisers at the meetings, which is really kind of boring. And, as Jones also contends, election commissioners probably can’t influence a counting of the votes to make sure their candidate wins.
But even though Jones may be keeping things well-oiled at the office, when it comes to him and his wife holding a big party for Ben Bennett, well, in his own words, “It probably doesn’t look good.”