‘Brains’ Behind JailCigs Operation, Russell, Receives Lighter Penalty Than Sheriff Arnold

It’s amazing how many people find religion when they get busted.

That may be what happened to former sheriff’s office administrative chief deputy Joe Russell when he got caught with former Sheriff Robert Arnold in a scheme to profit from the sale of e-cigarettes to county jail inmates.

He was already a faithful member of Kingwood Church of Christ, according to recent court testimony. But after he and Arnold were charged and convicted of federal corruption, his spirituality grew threefold.

Although the church prohibited him from teaching Sunday school after his arrest—you know how forgiving those good souls can be—he refused to give up on the church and not only did he start coming in to make coffee early in the morning before services, he also started cutting the church’s grass. No doubt he was singing hymns while doing that hard labor.

The transformation must have worked, because U.S. District Court Senior Judge Marvin Aspen gave Russell only 15 months in prison plus time off for good behavior for his role in the formation, operation and profiteering from JailCigs. In contrast, Arnold got 50 months, possibly because he showed little, if any, contrition and was the chief law enforcement officer in the county.

Russell, on the other hand, told the judge how he had worked hard all through life, including his struggle to get over the death of his first wife and their unborn child. Russell’s father-in-law Hiram Lester explained on the witness stand how his son-in-law worked for him rehabbing a rental house and doing other odd jobs, doted on his two daughters and always maintained a good relationship with his wife (Hiram’s daughter) Nicole.

For the life of him, though, Hiram, a former Murfreesboro Police officer, wasn’t able to comprehend why Russell had been convicted. Some people around town said one thing, others said another, and Hiram admitted to prosecutors he just couldn’t understand the charges.

Let’s break it down for him. Russell conspired with Arnold and John Vanderveer to come up with a plan to do business with inmates at the county jail without going through a bidding procedure, then lied to state and local officials about who was behind the company, all while running the private operation out of the jail on county time—a violation of sheriff’s office rules—and holding out the Rutherford County program as a model of success to market JailCigs to other jails across the state and nation. Some jails might still be doing business with JailCigs.

During his sentencing hearing, though, Russell said his main failure was to stop Arnold from taking all of the money that should have gone to Rutherford County in the form of commissions. He even told the judge he was proud of his business model.

That’s it. No sorrow about illegal contracts, fraud, deception or violations of sheriff’s office rules.

Sounds like a good gig if you can get it. Who wouldn’t want to get paid a sheriff’s office salary of about $72,000 while running a side business from its government office?

But sooner or later most criminal enterprises go awry. Eventually, former Deputy Chief Virgil Gammon blew the whistle, the mayor’s office found out, and state auditors started investigating before media blew the lid off the scheme.

Most people would have had more sympathy for Arnold and Russell if they hadn’t been so arrogant. But they were, and now they’re paying.

Russell, despite coming up with the business plan and running it, certainly got off a lot lighter than Arnold, much to the chagrin of many local officials who thought his penalty should have been stiffer because he was the brains behind the operation. But it appears he was ready to testify against Arnold and copped a plea, forcing the former sheriff to enter a plea too.

So even though Nicole Lester Russell, the county’s former election administrator, boo-hooed her way through Joe’s sentencing hearing, almost getting kicked out of court (some might have called it an Academy Award-winning performance) her sobs probably didn’t save him from as much prison time as did his plea agreement, which is sealed. (He also has to pay back more than $52,200 in earnings.)

Without a doubt, he came to his senses, to a degree. Cutting grass at church can be a soul-searching moment. It’s always good to humble yourself. If Russell did have a spiritual awakening or a moment of clarity, however, it was sort of a murky one because he still can’t admit he was using county property illegally to make tens of thousands of dollars, all while lying about it.

Oh well, for some it takes longer to admit the truth.

Judicial Oddity

Just a day before Russell’s sentencing hearing, a character letter from former Rutherford County Chancellor Robert Corlew appeared in Russell’s case file.

The former chancellor has been renting a home to the Russells since they moved from Osborne Lane next door to the Arnolds about three years ago. In Corlew’s July letter, he asked the judge to place Russell on probation rather than send him to prison, saying he’s known him for about 12 years, meeting him through his wife, Nicole, when she was a law student at the Nashville School of Law where he was an instructor. Nicole also worked for him as a law clerk.


“Mr. Russell has always seemed to be a great father to his children and a good husband,” Corlew wrote. “He has always taken an active role in the community. I was very surprised to learn of his convictions now pending before the Court for sentencing. I have every confidence that he will be a very law-abiding citizen from this point forward. Whatever consideration can be given to him for probation will certainly be appreciated by his family and friends.”

Of course, it would. But he’s not the first man in history to be convicted of a crime and sent to jail or prison. Why should Russell get special treatment?

Bob Corlew is a smart guy and an extremely nice person. But to say he was “surprised” to find out about Russell’s conviction is, well, a little more than surprising. This matter was only the biggest news in Rutherford County for more than two years, with exhaustive coverage in the media.

Bob must be related to Hiram Lester, because neither one of them seems to be able to figure it out.

Surely Corlew understands federal prosecutors don’t bring charges unless they have a rock-solid case. There was absolutely no doubt he was going to be convicted if the case went to trial. The only reason to plead guilty would be to turn evidence on co-defendants to get a lighter sentence, which is what happened.

In this situation, the most shocking thing is for a former judge to ask for lenience for a convicted felon. Fortunately for Corlew, his letter didn’t come up during Russell’s sentencing.

One wonders, though, how the Russells are continuing to pay rent to stay in Corlew’s Riverbend house if Joe is making hardly any money, at least according to testimony, and his wife can’t get a job despite being a licensed attorney. That neighborhood isn’t exactly a federal blight area.

Farewell to Tracy

Former Republican state Sen. Jim Tracy burst onto the political scene in Rutherford County more than 12 years ago when he ran against and defeated Democratic incumbent Sen. Larry Trail.

Tracy was a great campaigner and back slapper, always asking about your mother or your uncle, in my case, and the rest of your family. And in conservative Middle Tennessee, he endeared himself to people as he helped the Republican Party take control of the Senate and the House, where it holds supermajorities after years in the minority.


Recently, Tracy took a post as Tennessee director for Rural Development in the Department of Agriculture for the Trump Administration. The Bedford County resident had been working in insurance.

Growing up in the Hardin County area and attending UT-Martin, Tracy has rural roots. But considering Tennessee raises a lot of tobacco, the appointment is a bit strange, because Tracy introduced the legislation prohibiting smoking in workplaces along with an indoor smoking ban in public places owned by state and local government.

Can you believe it’s been only 10 years since you could smoke inside places such as City Cafe? Tracy did a lot of people a big favor when he passed that bill.

But he might not have done enough legislatively, despite chairing the Senate Transportation Committee, or enough backslapping to win two congressional races. In the first one, he came in third to Diane Black, a U.S. representative now running for governor, and Lou Ann Zelenik in the Republican primary. The next time, he fell 38 votes short in a primary loss to Congressman Scott DesJarlais, a situation in which both claimed victory on election night, forcing a recount. Oddly enough, he might not have campaigned hard enough to win against DesJarlais, despite claiming the moral high road against an incumbent plagued by reports of abortions by his first wife and dalliances with his medical patients and clinic visitors.

Those losses were pretty tough for Tracy to swallow, but he always bounced back, never letting any pain show. Following the decision by former Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey to step away from the state Senate last year, Tracy elevated in early 2017 to Senate speaker pro tempore, a key leadership position in the Legislature.

Such a move up probably caught the eye of the Trump Administration, enabling Tracy to latch on to a good job, one he’s probably been needing for a while to complement his political standing.

His days as a state senator are over, though, and the 14th District seat will be filled in a special election in 2018, with the primary set for Jan. 25 and general election scheduled for mid-March.


About the Author

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com

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