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Tennessee DOC’s Double Standard

Tennessee DOC's Double Standard

by Greg Bowers

The Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) applies a double standard to ethical violations committed by its employees and those committed by prisoners. TDOC staff who commit ethical violations are typically reassigned. Even when fired, they have been rehired days later.

Prisoners, on the other hand, are fired from their institutional jobs and classified to higher security levels for minor lapses.

Daniel D. Erickson, 45, is an attorney serving an eight-year prison sentence for attempting to hire a hit man to kill his wife. On March 1, 2005, while in a work-release program, Erickson landed a job with the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) as an administrative services assistant. His job was to determine whether policies were followed and he was one of several people to sign off on purchase orders. Erickson had an annual salary of $26,000 -- exceptional for that job classification.

TEMA is part of the Tennessee Military Department, headed by state National Guard Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, Jr. On February 23, 2005, Gen. Hargett won an exemption to pay guidelines for Erickson by contacting Personnel Commissioner Randy Camp and extolling Erickson's Juris Doctorate degree, real estate law practice, job responsibilities and work performance. TEMA director James Bassham told the Tennessean, a Nashville newspaper, that Erickson "was doing a fine job for us" and called him a model employee.

TEMA had issued Erickson a cell phone and a state vehicle so he could go to the post office and act as a courier between TEMA's two Nashville offices. The TDOC had approved his use of the vehicle but not a cell phone. An anonymous tip led the TDOC to investigate Erickson's use of the phone and vehicle; the investigation found that Erickson drove to unauthorized destinations. Also, for a time, Erickson had access to a gun safe in a TEMA office, though there was no indication that Erickson tried to gain access to the weapons. The guns were moved once officials became aware of the situation.

Following the TDOC's investigation, Erickson was moved to a more secure facility and TEMA fired him. Erickson's next parole hearing is in September 2007 and he is scheduled for release in late 2008.

The TDOC treats its staff very differently. TDOC purchasing director Nola Butler engaged in a romantic relationship with Martin Jennen, president of American Commissary Supply US, a vendor company. The relationship began months before Jennen's company was awarded, in October 2005, a contract to supply peanut butter, tuna, toothpaste and other items to TDOC prisoners. Butler was the TDOC's liaison to the state's General Services Department, which awarded and oversaw the contract. Butler had notified her superiors of her relationship with Jennen weeks before the contract was awarded yet no action was taken until May 2006, when TDOC Commissioner George Little initiated a search for a new purchasing director. Little noted there was no rule or policy that prohibited a state employee from dating a state contractor.

Megan Barry, a corporate ethicist and Metro Ethics Commission member, called it a "no-brainer" to immediately remove Butler from any involvement with the contract. Butler was involved in meetings to discuss the contract as late as June 2006. The contract was canceled on July 31, 2006 due to poor performance; coincidentally, the Tennessean had requested records related to the contract only six days prior to the cancellation.

Butler, a 28-year employee, was not punished; she was reassigned to a correctional program director position until her retirement.

During the summer of 2006, Tennessee proposed a $10 million expansion to the Metro Detention Facility in Antioch. The project was abandoned, but Metro continued to plan for expansion. Don Stoughton, Metro's correction's consultant, was paid $2.5 million in state funds to review the expansion. Tennessee?s Select Oversight Committee on Corrections dropped its probe of the Stoughton contract after finding no impropriety even though the state comptroller testified that 80 percent of the payments were made without proper state authorization. Furthermore, nobody seemed to know what benefit the state received for its money.

State Sen. Doug Jackson was annoyed by the deal, but saw no way to recoup any of the fees. The Committee will focus instead on monitoring future payments to Metro more carefully.

An anonymous complaint triggered a June 2006 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) inquiry into TDOC director of internal affairs Don Dunaway and special-agent-in-charge Joe Vernon. The TBI found pornographic and racially offensive e-mails on Dunaway's and Vernon's state laptop computers. The two admitted to TDOC Commissioner Little that they'd sent and received the e-mails while on duty. Their job duties had included investigating allegations of inappropriate workplace behavior, including sexual harassment. Dunaway and Vernon were fired on September 8, 2006.

Dunaway landed on his feet, however. Three days after the firing, Commissioner Little rehired him as a lieutenant at a prison in Pikesville. Dunaway was fired a second time after the Tennessean inquired about his re-employment; however, he was rehired again in March 2007 as an entry-level guard at the Southeast TN State Regional Corr. Facility.
"He is being rehired in a position that's non-supervisory, an entry-level position," stated TDOC spokesperson Dorinda Carter. "He won't have access to the Internet." She said there was no state rule that prohibited rehiring a former employee who had been fired for misconduct.

Sexual harassment has been a continuing problem at the TDOC: Former TDOC Commissioner Quentin White resigned in July 2005 amid a furor over his promotion of an administrator who had sexually harassed co-workers and allegations of White's own sexual harassment. [See PLN, Feb, 2006].

The TDOC is quick to punish prisoners but loathe to discipline its own staff members, and the department is oblivious to employees' ethical violations until questions are raised by newspaper reporters. As Metro Ethics Commission member Barry told Brad Schrade of the Tennessean, "People just don't get it."

Sources: Tennessean, Nashville City Paper

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