KINGSPORT, TN (WJHL) – Pictures, time sheets and badge access history records not only show former Kingsport Police Department Lt. Ralph Cline misused his city police cruiser on multiple occasions, they also raise questions about whether he also pocketed tax dollars for time he did not work.
His former police chief said our findings clearly show more inappropriate behavior. Meanwhile, the district attorney said our discovery could impact’s Cline’s upcoming sentencing hearing.
Cline, the former supervisor of KPD’s Strategic Operations Unit, pleaded guilty to patronizing prostitution last month following an undercover Tennessee Bureau of Investigation sting.
In the weeks before agents placed an undercover camera in Cline’s cruiser, we and others kept tabs on the then lieutenant’s whereabouts with our cameras.
One of the higher paid employees in the police department, Cline’s job duties included scheduling grant-funded overtime. But our investigation found his time is now in question.
“We were as surprised by this as I possibly can say,” KPD Chief David Quillin said. “We were duped. We’re saddened.”
Our cameras snapped pictures of Cline’s unmarked police car at Kingsport First Assembly Church of God on Oct. 24 at 11 a.m.
At the time, Cline worked a second job there as the church’s part-time bookkeeper. Cline’s cruiser remained at the church for more than an hour that day before leaving and not immediately returning to the police department.
His access badge history shows his badge first gained entry to KPD just before 9 a.m. that day and then later just before 3 p.m.
Quillin confirmed, at the least, the former lieutenant violated city policy by driving his city car to that church.
“That was a violation,” he said. “He was not allowed to do that.”
Pictures provided to News Channel 11, along with dates and times, show the same cruiser at the church on Oct. 2 for more than an hour. Records show Cline did not use his police department access badge again at all that day.
The pictures also show a car matching the same description at the church in the morning a few days later. Records show Cline did not use his access badge again until 4 p.m. that day. The month prior, a picture shows another similar looking car at the church late into the night.
Another picture also identifies a similar looking car at the church on September 13 at 10:26 p.m. On official city timesheets, Cline said he was in the midst of a four-hour grant-funded traffic saturation patrol at that time. KPD confirms taxpayers paid Cline time-and-a-half for those patrols.
His hourly salary at the time of his resignation was more than $32 an hour, according to a KPD spokesperson. Public records show Cline only wrote four citations during his saturation patrol on September 23. He issued the last citation nearly an hour before the time listed on the picture.
“This whole thing’s disappointing,” Quillin said of our discovery.
After receiving a tip about Cline’s possible involvement with a prostitute, the chief said his agency alerted the district attorney.
Sullivan County District Attorney Barry Staubus authorized an undercover sting as a result, which quickly led to Cline’s resignation and patronizing prostitution guilty plea last month.
“We wanted to take that action to get him out of the department and that was a black and white thing,” Staubus said “Either it was a prostitute or it wasn’t. That was my priority.”
Staubus said while he knew of other allegations against Cline, those were less black and white. He said that’s why he specifically asked state agents to focus on the prostitution claims.
“I had some information that he may have been at other places, but I did not have a lot of detail and again, my main concern was, ‘What can I prove immediately to get this thing taken care of?'” Staubus said.
Cline is seeking probation and eventual expungement for the crime, but Staubus said the judge can consider additional factors, like what we’ve discovered, at his sentencing hearing in February.
“Whether or not that would tip the scale on diversion or not, that would be up to the judge to determine,” Staubus said.
While Cline’s future is still unclear, his past clearly shows a career book-ended by problems.
Cline’s early years at KPD included multiple complaints about improper conduct and misuse of his cruiser, according to disciplinary records in his personnel file. The department even took away his police car at one point, according to those records.
Despite his early troubles, in the 25 years that followed, Quillin said there were no other warnings until a fellow officer came forward with a tip in late October.
“I like to think there’s some value and some good that this particular officer (Cline) was able to accomplish over his career,” the chief said.
Looking back, Cline’s grant-funded saturation patrol activity sheets were likely a sign. Timesheets show Cline earned more than $2,000 in overtime working grant-funded saturation patrols this year. As a result, on average, he wrote just one citation per every hour worked, according to the records.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” Quillin said. “You look back at it and the numbers appear to be lower probably than any of the other officers that have had that assignment in the past.”
“In any way do you think the Kingsport Police Department let the public down in this situation?” we asked the chief.
“I think Lt. Cline let us down,” the chief said. “It comes down to we don’t know what we don’t know.”
Quillin said while the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the former lieutenant, the department’s since learned from the situation and its supervisors are pledging to restore the public’s trust and confidence by keeping a closer watch on the agency’s officers.
“I apologize,” the chief said. “I’m sorry that we have all went through this together and we’re going to work hard to come out on the other end and provide an even higher level of service.”
The police department said Cline’s supervisory position came with a flexible schedule and valid reasons to routinely leave the office, but also came with a significant amount of trust. The chief said Cline violated that trust, even saying he’s heard the former officer arranged meetings with prostitutes using his work phone and work computer.
Cline’s since filed for state retirement benefits. A felony conviction would disqualify him or any employee from collecting those state benefits, according to Tennessee Department of Treasury Communications Director Shelli King. Cline pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.
“…pursuant to State law, a member of the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (‘TCRS’) does not forfeit his/her TCRS benefits unless and until the member is convicted of a felony arising out of the member’s employment or official capacity as a Tennessee public employee,” King said.
The district attorney said if KPD knows of additional criminal activity, prosecutors are willing to look at that.
Cline’s attorney declined comment for this story.
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