Tennessee Senate considers restriction on scandal-ridden patrol

| Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Tennessee Senate is considering legislation to limit political contributions from Tennessee Highway Patrol officers, after a voracious series of investigations by a newspaper thrust the patrol into the limelight.

On Tuesday, Dec. 13, the Senate Transportation Committee announced that it had discussed such legislation, and also said it had considered placing THP back under the ethical monitoring of the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission – which it was removed from in 1983 – to investigate procedures for promotions within the patrol.

“What it’s come down to is politics,” committee member Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, told The Tennessean in reference to the patrol’s promotion system.

The legislation in question comes just weeks after Col. Lynn Pitts, a 31-year veteran and head of the patrol since 2003, resigned from his position Dec. 6, after a story in The Tennessean found that 48 of the state’s more than 800 troopers had some type of charges – and in some cases convictions – on their criminal record, including felonies and suspended driver’s licenses.

“As a result of recent events in the Tennessee Department of Safety, I have requested and received the resignation of Tennessee Highway Patrol Col. Lynn Pitts,” Fred Phillips, safety commissioner for the state, said in a press release.

“This action comes as a result of Col. Pitt’s’ attempt to purchase a boat through the surplus division of the Department of General Services, which is in violation of TCA 12-2-208.”

Additionally, The Tennessean also uncovered the story of Jerry Dean Watson – a former “trooper of the year” – who’d been convicted of a felony and resigned from the THP in November 2001, only to be hired back in January 2003.

His crime?Forging a judge’s signature to get out of a speeding ticket.

The Tennessean’s probe of the patrol has been an ongoing topic of interest for the newspaper. Less than six months ago, an investigative series uncovered corruption in THP’s “honorary captain” program, which eventually led to its government-ordered shutdown.

State officials have not taken The Tennessean’s investigations lightly. After Watson’s rehiring was uncovered earlier this week, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen ordered background checks on all 800-plus THP officers.

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