Tennessee governor calls for THP reform; more scandal uncovered

| 1/11/2006

Another investigation by a Tennessee newspaper has discovered a cover-up involving the state’s deputy governor, a speeding ticket and a Tennessee Highway Patrol officer.

On Tuesday, Jan. 10, The Tennessean reported that THP higher-ups gave a fake punishment to Lt. Ronnie Shirley, who was supposedly reassigned after he fixed a speeding ticket received by Deputy Gov. Dave Cooley in February 2004.

According to the Tennessean, notes taken by another officer show that the patrol did not actually reassign Shirley, but instead changed enough paperwork to make it appear that they had, so that the media would be “satisfied thinking we did something to him.”

News of the cover-up has sent more tremors through the halls of the Tennessee governor’s office. On the same day the news story broke, Gov. Phil Bredesen announced he would be introducing legislation to place THP back under the oversight of the Peace Officers Standards and Training Council as soon as the state’s lawmakers reconvene.

The patrol was under the council’s watch until 1983.

Cooley came under fire in early December 2005, when Lynn Pitts, the former head of the patrol, resigned over allegations of ethics violations. After stepping down, Pitts fingered 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.

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.

Additionally, The Tennessean 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.

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

Trooper Ronald D. Seay was placed on administrative leave, Dec. 5, 2005, after an Internal Affairs investigation discovered that his ex-wife’s embroidery company was doing work for the Department of Homeland Security, a violation of patrol policy.

The day before Seay’s suspension, troopers Vincent Turocy and Joseph Agee II were placed on leave, for their management of statetrooperstore.com, which supplied the patrol with merchandise, which also violates ethics policies, according to The Tennessean.

In early January, The Tennessean uncovered possible breaches of conduct in the patrol’s Memphis bureau.

On Tuesday, Jan. 3, the newspaper reported that an unnamed patrol officer was being examined for having “inappropriate relations” with female prison inmates who performed custodial duties in the patrol’s Memphis office. Officers also allegedly allowed the inmates to access private information on the patrol’s computers.

Last week, the patrol’s Internal Affairs department interviewed patrol officers as a follow-up to an anonymous tip about the unethical behavior, according to The Tennessean.

“The only specific thing (the anonymous tip) does allege is that it is a supervisor, that there was possibly some inappropriate activity taking place with female inmates and perhaps female inmates had access to too much information,” Internal Affairs Capt. Dereck Stewart told the newspaper.

The investigation is not the first to find possible sexual wrongdoing in the patrol. On Thursday, Dec. 22, The Tennessean reported that Sgt. Gregory R. Badacour – who in August 2004 was arrested for filming people having sex at a local lookout point – was given a one-day suspension for his actions, and is still working as a patrol officer at the state capitol.

According to The Tennessean,Badacour pleaded guilty to filming one couple and was placed on probation, while his police file says he filmed at least nine other couples. He also admitted to clicking on a child pornography Web site link on a computer.

However, his record with THP only mentions the one guilty plea, despite being informed by the local police of the other incidents, The Tennessean reported.

Although Badacour does have a criminal record, he’s certainly not the only one in THP.

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 found 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 with better test scores.