Report questions former Carter County sheriff’s spending

CARTER COUNTY, TN (WJHL) – Two years after voters replaced former Carter County, Sheriff Chris Mathes a recently finalized government report raises questions about several decisions he reportedly made before leaving office.

The report, officially closed last month by the Carter County Financial Management Committee, mentions an unauthorized bonus to Mathes’ secretary, a push to buy marked up e-cigarettes from an area businessman to sell at the jail and a $2,400 payment to that same businessman to put up a single anti-drug poster inside his business.

“Would I have done that? I don’t know. I don’t think so,” Committee Chairman Ray Lyons said about some of the former sheriff’s reported decisions. “In my mind, I would be concerned.”

A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe connected to Mathes did not result in criminal charges, but the special prosecutor in charge of the case, Sullivan County District Attorney Barry Staubus, said some of the allegations were concerning to him.

“There were things that I thought were a bad judgment that I wouldn’t have made those decisions to do. I don’t think they were appropriate, but that’s a different decision then whether a crime was committed,” Staubus said. “I have to admit a lot of the decisions were poor judgment in my opinion, but I could never establish that he received a direct benefit.”

Staubus, who closed the case last year, says not only wasn’t there evidence Mathes received a direct benefit, the man also had a signed letter from the county attorney giving his approval to the department’s commissary contract. That said, Staubus says he did have evidence the former sheriff circumvented Carter County government, a misdemeanor crime, but could not move forward with charges.

“That was a violation of the law, but the problem was the statute of limitations had run on that case,” he said.

The Financial Management Committee’s close out report identifies=d roughly $75,000 worth of unauthorized expenses discovered after current Sheriff Dexter Lunceford took office in 2014. Sheriff Lunceford previously told us the previous administration moved money around without the approval of the county commission or involvement of the county trustee. State law requires all money to go through a central public accounting system.

“The money was being receipted and spent through a private checking account,” Sheriff Lunceford said in 2014.

The expenses all stemmed from the operation of the jail’s commissary where inmates buy items. Sheriff Lunceford presented all of the findings at a committee meeting in November.

According to the report, the investigation identified a $2,300 bonus to Mathes’ secretary.

“The (commissary vendor) stated that on August 12, 2014, former Sheriff Mathes, directed her to write a $2,300 check to a Northeast Community Credit Union account,” the report said. “This credit union account is now known to belong to Mr. Mathes’ personal secretary…This check was written after (the commissary vendor) stated that she refused to follow Mr. Mathes’ direction to write a check…for a ‘bonus.'”

The report says Mathes also directed the commissary vendor to write a $2,400 check to “Things.” A note with the check said the money was a payment for the display of an anti-drug poster display at a cost of $200 a month for 12 months, according to the report.

“No one in the Carter County Sheriff’s Office’s department leadership or Drug Unit was aware of this invoice, contract, or requirement,” the report said. “It was later determined that this payment was for the display of one (1) anti-drug awareness poster placed on the wall of a business located in Johnson City operated by the former owner of ‘Things’…for a period of 12 months.”

Not only that, the commissary vendor told investigators Mathes required her to buy 1,000 e-cigarettes at a price of $17 apiece to sell in the jail from the owner of “Things.”

“The (commissary vendor) reported that she could purchase this same e-cigarette on the open market for $6 each,” the report said. “(The commissary vendor) stated that she felt coerced to purchase the e-cigarettes at the $17 price or lose her contract.”

In the end, the report determined the jail lost $2 per cigarette after the former sheriff directed her to sell them at a reduced cost because “they failed to sell due to the high price.”

State auditors previously recommended the county try to recoup some of the unauthorized compensation, but the Financial Management Committee unanimously voted to take no further action.

“Why didn’t the committee say, ‘Let’s try and recoup this money?'” we asked Chairman Lyons.

“The committee didn’t even discuss that,” he said.

Lyons says the potential legal costs went through his mind.

“Was it really worth spending a lot of money to try to recoup a small amount of money?” he asked. “What’s in the best interest of the taxpayers of Carter County?”

When Sheriff Lunceford presented the final report last month, he also shared seven recommendations and solutions to prevent the past from repeating itself.

“We have actioned the recommendations that we had authority over,” Carter County Chief Deputy James Parrish said. “The Sheriff stands by those with no further comment.”

Lyons says those changes brought the committee comfort.

“So, you feel like it’s been corrected?” we asked him.

“Absolutely. Absolutely, without a doubt,” Lyons said.

Lyons says it’s his belief the public should know exactly what the report found and exactly what kind of action the committee took.

“Bottom line, county policy was not followed?” we asked.

“Absolutely not,” Lyons said. “It was not followed.”

From the beginning, Mathes has insisted fraud did not occur. He declined an on-camera interview for this story, but did release a statement, telling us none of the expenses were personal in nature.

“It was sincerely my privilege to serve the great citizens as Sheriff of Carter County for 8 years,” Mathes said. “It is my understanding that any audit investigation after leaving office has been closed resulting in no wrong doing. I have now been out of political office for well over 2 years. I suspect that any conversations otherwise are merely politics as usual regarding the upcoming 2018 Carter County Sheriff’s election.”

Mathes is now an East Tennessee State University police officer. According to an ETSU spokesperson, Mathes began working at the university on September 1, 2015.

Just last month, Elizabethton considered Mathes a finalist for its police chief job, according to City Manager Jerome Kitchens.

Lyons said when the committee made its decision to close its report, politics did not come into play.

“This is not about new sheriff, old sheriff,” he said. “It’s not a political thing for me.”

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Copyright WJHL 2016. All rights reserved.

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