Tennessee Sheriff Indicted, Suspended and Jailed Over E-cig Business
Tennessee’s Rutherford County Sheriff has been indicted and is presently incarcerated, awaiting trial on charges related to his connections with a company that sold e-cigarettes to prisoners at his jail, as well as other contracts he entered into without county approval.
In May 2016, Sheriff Robert Arnold and two alleged accomplices, Joe L. Russell II and John Vanderveer, were indicted by federal prosecutors on thirteen criminal counts related to an ongoing investigation conducted by the FBI and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
The charges against the men include conspiracy, fraud, bribery concerning programs receiving federal funding, extortion under color of office and attempted witness tampering. If convicted on all charges they face up to 95 years in prison.
Sheriff Arnold was elected to a second term in August 2014. After it was discovered he had ties with friends and relatives who owned JailCigs, LLC, a company based in Georgia, Arnold faced calls for his resignation. He refused to step down, however, even while under indictment.
A financial disclosure form that Arnold filed with the Tennessee Ethics Commission listed JailCigs as an investment and source of income. The disclosure also listed his wife, Megan, as holding investments in the company; according to other sources, she served as a part-time employee for JailCigs.
The company is owned by John and Judy Vanderveer, who are Arnold’s uncle and aunt, and Joe Russell. Russell is the chief deputy administrator for the Sheriff’s Office as well as Arnold’s next-door neighbor and campaign chairman. While the sheriff denied having profited from JailCigs, according to prosecutors he received $66,000 from the business between October 2013 and April 2015.
“An open records request of emails sent to and received on Russell’s sheriff’s office account show dozens and dozens of email exchanges with John Vanderveer and jailers responsible for making sure inmates whose families and friends made orders with JailCigs received their e-cigarettes,” reported the Murfreesboro Post.
Prisoners who paid $12.95 were allowed to purchase four e-cigarettes weekly, but once the cozy connection with the sheriff was revealed, JailCigs’ contract with the jail was suspended.
County officials are awaiting the outcome of an investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the State Comptroller’s Office. The County Commission had not authorized the contract with JailCigs, or an amendment to a contract with Access Securepak – a subsidiary of Keefe Group that provides commissary items and video visitation at the jail.
“No one is authorized to execute a contract, sign a contract without commission approval,” said Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess. “We’re not to buy any products or enter into any agreements without going through the purchasing committee. That’s the fundamental starting point.”
Two other financial improprieties were uncovered. One was a $7,990 order for 1,000 prisoner clothing bags that was paid with John Vanderveer’s credit card; the other was a $15,000 purchase paid by Keefe.
Following a September 5, 2016 incident in which Arnold, while reportedly intoxicated, assaulted his wife because she had stopped having sex with him, a federal judge revoked his $250,000 bond. The sheriff was taken into custody by the U.S. Marshals Service and jailed in Grayson County, Kentucky while he awaits trial, which is scheduled for February 2017.
At the time that Arnold’s bond was revoked, the federal judge overseeing the case expressed concerns that so long as the sheriff remained in office, he would continue to inappropriately use his power for personal gain.
While the alleged domestic violence incident took place within the city limits of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, only the county sheriff’s office was called to respond. A number of deputies visited Arnold’s home but none filed any report of the incident. Arnold had also failed to report the incident during a probation hearing held the same week.
In October 2016, the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association, by a unanimous executive committee vote, suspended Arnold’s membership in the organization. The sheriff also was suspended from his official duties by a chancery court judge on November 14, 2016, which means he will no longer receive a paycheck. That action was taken in a civil suit filed by a dozen county residents seeking to remove him from office.
In related news, Rutherford County Sheriff’s Major Terry McBurney was suspended without pay in December 2016 amid an investigation that found he made false statements regarding his U.S. citizenship. McBurney had previously been fired by the Sheriff’s Office, but was rehired by Arnold in 2010. He faces charges of unlawful procurement of naturalization, wire fraud and making false statements regarding an application for citizenship.
That same month, Rutherford County’s jail was decertified by the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI), a state agency. TCI inspectors found that jail staff were not performing checks of prisoners placed in restraint chairs or on suicide watch as required, and noted two prisoners had committed suicide at the jail in 2016.
Sources: www.wsmv.com, www.murfreesboropost.com, The Daily News Journal, www.wkrn.com, www.dnj.com, www.fox17.com, www.wafb.com, www.tennessean.com