Newspaper’s investigation puts Tennessee Patrol in hot seat

By Aaron Ladage
staff writer

The Tennessee Highway Patrol continues to be under the microscope after a newspaper uncovered numerous instances of cronyism and criminal histories throughout the patrol's ranks.

At press time, The Tennessean was reporting that an officer was being examined for alleged "inappropriate relations" with female inmates working as custodians in the patrol's Memphis office. The inmates also were allegedly allowed to access information on patrol computers.   

Previously, on Aug. 8, 2005, Gov. Phil Bredesen ordered the patrol to stop its "Honorary Captain" program - a 30-year-old practice that some believe was a secretive way for high-profile citizens to stay out of trouble with the law. The governor's action came after an investigative story that ran in The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville.

The newspaper found that 360 people had received the "Honorary Captain" badges since 2002, 19 of whom are current or past staffers for the governor. Two badgeholders in the program - which had no eligibility criteria, application process or background checks - had criminal records.

According to The Tennessean, two sergeants - Sgt. Tansil Phillips and Sgt. Timothy Holloway - whose testimony was key in the dismissal of a DUI case against an "honorary captain," had their promotions to lieutenant put on hold by state Safety Commissioner Fred Phillips. The sergeants' promotions were scheduled to happen three days after the governor ended the honorary program.

The commissioner also put a temporary halt on all promotions for lieutenants and sergeants until the DUI case could be more thoroughly investigated.

Just as the dust from the badge scandal began to settle, The Tennessean found that 48 of the state's more than 800 troopers had some type of charges on their criminal record, including felony charges and suspended driver's licenses. The paper also discovered that two-thirds of all officers in the patrol had made some sort of campaign contribution, and about half of those were promoted over troopers who had better test scores.

State officials have not taken The Tennessean's investigations lightly. The governor ordered background checks on all 800-plus THP officers.

The investigation eventually led to the resignation of three higher-ups in the patrol, including Lynn Pitts, the former head and highest uniformed officer of the patrol. Pitts also fingered Deputy Gov. Dave Cooley - the second in command in the state's government - saying he was involved in cronyism and was often consulted when it came time for high-level promotions within THP.