Business as Usual?
Troopers shouldn’t continue cronyism and politics
by Frank Cagle
Gov. Phil Bredesen is moving to clean up the Tennessee Highway Patrol and do something about the politics and the cronyism that have plagued the agency for so many years. The announcement of the clean-up comes on the heels of a series of embarrassing stories and the resignations of the top three officials in the department.
While the recent announcement is welcome and some attempt to turn the scandal-plagued organization into an effective law enforcement agency is to be applauded, it might be appropriate to examine the record thus far. How is it that the troopers got themselves into so much trouble? What were they thinking? We should remember that there are dedicated men and women out there wearing a trooper uniform that just want to do their job and serve the public. What has been their impression of the department they work for over the last three years?
When Bredesen came into office he appointed his Washington County campaign manager, Sheriff Fred Phillips, to head the Department of Safety. While it is certainly not unusual for a governor to give that job to a campaign supporter, it certainly sent a signal to the troopers that it was business as usual.
Gladys Crain was Bredesen’s Lauderdale County campaign chair. She had an honorary trooper captain’s badge and ID card, in addition to having done time in prison resulting from the Blanton administration highway bid-rigging scandal. Two troopers went to bat for her grandson, also an honorary captain, and gave questionable testimony in his DUI trial. The punishment result for the two troopers? The recently resigned political appointee, Commissioner Phillips, promoted them to lieutenant, despite one of them having lower scores than others on the list. The troopers used Crain as a reference.
Then it was revealed that two-thirds of the promotions since Bredesen has been in office went to troopers that were campaign contributors or had relatives that were. Some were promoted even with lower scores than other troopers that weren’t promoted. If you are a line officer, what does this tell you about how you are supposed to get ahead in the Highway Patrol?
Did all of this indicate to the average trooper that the Bredesen administration was opposed to business as usual? Where was the signal that they shouldn’t continue to do things the way they always have? In every case, the trooper that plays ball gets a reward. People with political connections get favored treatment. What logical conclusion should any trooper draw from the actions of the Bredesen administration for the last three years?
Col. Lynn Pitts, the trooper’s commander, sent them all a memo telling them they really needed to get all of their criminal convictions off their records. Did Pitts think he might be running out of people that had the security clearances needed to access FBI crime data? A total of 41 out of 855 troopers have a criminal violation. If a private organization had that kind of record wouldn’t the U.S. attorney consider looking at a RICO violation, as running a criminal enterprise?
Reporter Brad Schrade and the Tennessean have done the state a terrific service in exposing all these scandals. They need to win whatever journalism awards are available for the year 2005. But I hardly think the Bredesen administration needs to be applauded for finally moving to clean up this mess.
It is certainly true that corruption and cronyism and political decision making in the Highway Patrol did not originate in the Bredesen administration. It is certainly true that Bredesen came into office having to deal with a tight budget and the problems with TennCare; reforming the Highway Patrol did not leap out as a high priority. I don’t think anyone believes that Bredesen was sitting around counting the troopers that gave him a campaign contribution and having them promoted. The new governor did issue tough ethical guidelines for his senior staff in the wake of the Sundquist administration scandals in which two people have gone to jail and one is awaiting trial.
But Phillips and Pitts and the department hierarchy were aware of the previous administration scandals. They have also watched the FBI’s Tennessee Waltz investigation unfold and the arrest of sitting legislators. Former state Rep. Chris Newton drew justified criticism when he described his ethical problems as a result of being caught up in “business as usual.” But in the case of the Highway Patrol, it certainly seems to be the case.
We’ve seen people in the last administration sent to jail. We’ve seen legislators arrested for taking bribes. We’ve seen the troopers in the worst light possible. The Democrats keep resisting having an elected attorney general that answers to the voters. They argue that it isn’t an ethics issue and should not be part of any ethics reform package.
What do you think?
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .