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VOL. 133 | NO. 167 | Thursday, August 23, 2018

Comptroller’s TBI Report Spurs New Legislation

Special to The Daily News

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Legislation to crack down on misuse of state-issued cell phones is being spurred by a state Comptroller’s report showing the former acting director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and his girlfriend downloaded apps enabling them to communicate undetected.

State Sen. Mike Bell, chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, said he plans to sponsor legislation in 2019 targeting improper use of state cell phones with secret apps.

Meanwhile, state Rep. G.A. Hardaway said better “checks and balances” are needed in all departments to ferret out inappropriate use of state equipment, rather than depending on a complaint to be filed or an agency’s review hearing. The former acting director’s wife tipped off the governor’s office about her husband’s indiscretions.

“I would wager … the first problem we identify is not necessarily the first time it’s occurred,” said Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat.

The Comptroller’s report showed Jason Locke, who resigned from the TBI this summer amid an investigation into his activities, and Sejal West, former deputy commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, installed WhatsApp on their state cell phones enabling them to use texts, voice, video and document messaging with end-to-end encryption, making it more difficult to capture and retain public records.

In 10 months, they made 883 calls totaling 8,219 minutes during work hours, after work and on weekends, the report shows.

“When I saw they put that on state phones, I said ‘that’s wrong,’ and we need to make sure all departments have a policy that tells employees they can’t do that,” said Bell, a Republican from Riceville in southeast Tennessee.

Bell said he plans to sponsor legislation next year directing all state departments to put together rules prohibiting the downloading of apps allowing secret communications.

State Rep. Jeremy Faison, chair of the House Government Operations Committee, called the actions by Locke “embarrassing” and wondered what repercussions the incident could have. The comptroller’s report didn’t find any criminal wrongdoing, but Faison acknowledged state-issued phones and the vehicle used by Locke to transport West to an out-of-town trip are paid for with state tax dollars.

“Whether it’s in policy or law, we need to make sure no state employee is putting on some type of app that would encourage use of that device other than what it’s for,” said Faison, an East Tennessee Republican.

Locke also used his state vehicle to take West on a trip to Atlanta, a violation of TBI policy prohibiting non-TBI personnel in vehicles, according to the report. West had no official business in Atlanta and failed to claim annual leave on those two days. Her department corrected the matter when notified by the Comptroller’s Office, the report shows.

The Atlanta trip was one of eight trips on which Locke and West coordinated their travel, and several times they stayed in the same hotel, but most of those trips involved legitimate state business, according to the report.

In addition, Locke instructed one of the agency’s public information offices to destroy a government record, a violation dealing with public records on social media. Besides notifying the governor’s office, Locke’s wife sent the TBI a private Facebook message alleging misuse of state funds by her husband.

“After discussing the message with the TBI acting director, the public information officer deleted the message within 10 minutes after it was received,” according to the Comptroller’s report.

No criminal charges lodged

The Comptroller’s Office referred its investigation to Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk, who presented the case to the Davidson County grand jury. But the grand jury determined neither employee violated any criminal statutes.

Consequently, Funk is no longer pursuing the case, according to DA’s Office spokesman Stephen Hayslip.

Locke’s case was the second high-profile matter Funk handled this year regarding government officials and romantic affairs on government time. In the first case, Funk reached a plea agreement with now-former Nashville Mayor Megan Barry and the chief of her security detail, former Metro Police Sgt. Rob Forrest.

Barry pleaded to a Class C felony charge of theft over $10,000 and is serving three years on probation and must reimburse Metro Nashville government $11,000 in unlawful expenditures.

Forrest, who also made a plea bargain with the district attorney Tuesday, was placed on three years’ probation and must repay $45,000 paid to him as salary or overtime during times he was not performing his duties as chief of Barry’s security detail.

A criminal investigation into their activities found Forrest logged so many hours of overtime working for Barry his salary increased to about $160,000 last fiscal year. It turned up numerous trips out of state and abroad together, and prosecutors said they found a nude picture and partially nude photo of a woman on Forrest’s phone.

The $11,000 paid by Barry represents Forrest’s travel expenses, according to the DA, and a timeframe given in court, March 1, 2016 through January 2018, represents the approximate length of the affair between the pair.

Hayslip said the cases differ in that even though Locke and West attended events together, there was never any proof they spent taxpayer dollars on personal time or items or stayed at events for extra days, as was proven in the Barry case.

Hardaway, however, said the Barry matter is extremely similar to the Locke case, in that both cases show people using government resources for personal benefit, regardless of the relationships.

“I think what we need then is a report from the DA that details his analysis. That’s not making sense,” Hardaway said.

Shortly before Locke’s resignation, former Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch was appointed director of the TBI.

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