Prosecutor sees no wrongdoing in Tennessee gift-for-favor scandals

| 1/18/2006

The prosecutor in Knox County , TN , has announced that state troopers who receive gifts in exchange for fixing tickets are not necessarily breaking any laws, following a requested inquiry by Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen.

The question was raised after the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation found that Tennessee Highway Patrol Trooper Jerry Dean Watson had “fixed” a speeding ticket for an employee of a Knoxville meat packing plant. According to The Tennessean, the company, Lay Packing Co., had given gifts of ham to THP officers for a long period of time.

Watson pleaded guilty in 2001 to illegally forging the signature of a judge to have the ticket eliminated. However, Bredesen consulted the Knox County prosecutor to determine if – in a hypothetical situation where forgery was not involved – having a ticket dismissed for someone who had given a gift would be considered an illegal activity.

In a written statement the prosecutor, District Attorney General Randy Nichols, said that although Lay Packing Co. had given gifts to troopers, it did not create a situation where asking for a ticket dismissal would be a criminal offense.

“This may well have created an atmosphere where Lay Packing Co. employees felt comfortable in asking for ‘favors’; however, that would not be in and of itself a criminal offense,” Nichols said in his statement. “It is not a criminal offense if a trooper requests a prosecutor or a judge to dismiss the case as a ‘favor’ unless that request is in return for some direct benefit to the trooper.”

The ticket-fixing story made national headlines after The Tennessean revealed that Watson – a former “trooper of the year” – resigned from the THP in November 2001 after being convicted for the incident, only to be hired back in January 2003.

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

The ruling is the latest in a string of scandals in Tennessee ’s state and local police forces, which have been repeatedly uncovered by The Tennessean. The newspaper has uncovered more than a dozen incidents, with allegations ranging from sexual misconduct to high-level cronyism throughout the state’s police force and various levels of government.