Press conference at the U.S. Attorney's Office Saturday.
Hamilton County Sheriff Billy Long — who after his election victory in August 2006 pledged to “take the department to a higher level” — now is in federal custody on extortion, money laundering and gun charges.
Sheriff Long, 55, was escorted into U.S. District Court Saturday afternoon in jeans, a denim jacket and handcuffs. FBI agents had arrested him several hours earlier, the next step in what they said was an approximately 10-month investigation that is still continuing.
Authorities said he will remain in custody in an undisclosed location pending the outcome of a bond hearing set for 2 p.m. Monday. Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Humble said he plans to ask that the sheriff be detained, as he is “a danger to the community.”
He also likely will face additional charges “as a result of arrest activities” Saturday morning, said U.S. Attorney James R. “Russ” Dedrick, declining to elaborate further.
In a news conference announcing the sheriff’s arrest Saturday, FBI Special Agent Richard Lambert, who is in charge of the agency’s Knoxville division, called the case “emblematic” of the FBI’s efforts to fight public corruption.
“This is a sad day for all of us working in law enforcement in East Tennessee,” Special Agent Lambert said. “When any law enforcement officer, be it federal, state or local, puts his desire for money above his sworn duty to protect and to serve, we all suffer.”
Chattanooga Police Sgt. Craig Joel, president of the Southeast Tennessee chapter of the Police Benevolent Association, said the news sent waves of “shock and betrayal” throughout all local law enforcement agencies.
The PBA, along with the Fraternal Order of Police and International Brotherhood of Police Officers, endorsed Sheriff Long’s bid for office.
“We gave him our credibility, and he handed it back to us on a plate,” Sgt. Joel said.
Though Sheriff Long still holds office, Sgt. Joel said many hope he will step down.
“I cannot imagine a more tasteful course for him at this point than resignation,” the sergeant said.
Hamilton County Commissioner Curtis Adams on Saturday also called for the sheriff’s immediate resignation.
PBA Vice President Mark Kimsey, a sergeant with the sheriff’s department, described himself as a close personal friend and campaign contributor of Sheriff Long’s. Sgt. Kimsey said the arrest left him and his co-workers at the sheriff’s department “sick.”
“I expected it about as much as I expected a tsunami to overcome the Tennessee River,” he said.
During his hearing Saturday, the sheriff bowed his head and averting his eyes from the gallery of news reporters huddled into the first two rows of the courtroom as U.S. Magistrate Judge William B. Mitchell Carter outlined the charges against him.
Sheriff Long — who oversees about 400 employees and makes about $104,000 a year — is accused of shaking down ethnic Indian convenience store owners to “make good on what (he) claimed was a promised campaign contribution,” according to the criminal complaint filed against him.
He is accused of accepting 12 payments totaling $17,400 between April 3, 2007, and Dec. 14, 2007, to protect the store owners’ video poker business and other illegal activity, the complaint states.
The complaint alleges that Sheriff Long met in April with the owner of a Rossville Boulevard convenience store in a backroom, where Mr. Long is accused of telling the owner that he and other Indian store owners still owed Mr. Long $38,000 toward $50,000 promised in the sheriff’s 2006 campaign.
Mr. Long allegedly threatened “to have to shut the store down” if the payment was not made, and that “if we go after one store, we’ll go after all of them,” the complaint states.
The owner of the Chevron Food Mart, Peddapuli Rao, gave Mr. Long $300 in a 2006 campaign contribution, according to Hamilton County records. In the store at 4510 Rossville Boulevard, photographs are displayed of Mr. Rao with Mr. Long, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield and former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, who is now a U.S. senator.
Mr. Rao was unavailable at the store Saturday.
Federal officials also allege that Sheriff Long received five cash payments totaling $6,550 between Dec. 3 and Jan. 24, payoff for allowing what he thought was the laundering of $625,000 in drug trafficking proceedings. The operation, which supposedly involved shipping money to Mexico in cremation urns under cremated human remains, was actually an undercover sting conducted by the FBI.
To further the operation, Sheriff Long also allegedly provided someone he knew was a convicted felon with a Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department patrolman’s badge and a revolver.
The sheriff could receive up to 20 years in prison and have to pay as much as a $250,000 fine for both the extortion and the money laundering charges, according to Mr. Humble. The gun charge carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine, he said.
Sheriff Long hardly spoke during his hearing, uttering some 20 words in response to questions from the judge. He sat alone, having not yet retained an attorney.
Chief Deputy Allen Branum said he had only been made aware of any charges against Sheriff Long on Saturday morning, when he received a phone call while working at his church.
Officials surprised, shocked
Chief Branum, who will immediately take over day-to-day operations of the department, said he was “absolutely” disappointed in the allegations against the man who appointed him. He fought back tears after federal authorities announced the sheriff’s arrest at a news conference Saturday.
“This is not uncommon that these things happen, but it’s uncommon that they happen to us,” he said.
Chattanooga Police Chief Freeman Cooper said he was out of town Saturday morning when he received a call alerting him to the sheriff’s arrest.
“I had no idea whatsoever,” said Chief Cooper, who has publicly discussed his intent to work closely with Sheriff Long and his department.
Chief Cooper said the news saddened him but would not change his attitude toward working with the sheriff’s department.
“As a law enforcement agency, we’re committed to working with the county, and we will do so,” he said.
FBI officials confirmed Saturday that no one else within the department is being investigated in connection with the sheriff’s case.
Chief Branum said he met with other department officials Saturday to brief them on the situation and reassure them that the department would continue to operate in a professional manner.
“We want to maintain the credibility of this department,” he said during the news conference. “I hate for this cloud to come over this sheriff’s office. It’s hard to convince people that our credibility is intact.”
Former Sheriff John Cupp was a 12-year incumbent when Sheriff Long — who was backed by the Police Benevolent Association, Fraternal Order of Police and International Brotherhood of Police Officers — beat him in the last election. Mr. Cupp said he, too, worried about the department’s reputation.
“There have been problems down through the years,” he said, referring to a federal probe a decade ago that uncovered corruption in the Hamilton County Jail and ultimately led to 29 prison sentences.
“It’s unusual for anybody to get in trouble that fast,” he said, citing Sheriff Long’s 16-month tenure.
Sheriff Long had worked for the department for 31 years before retiring to make his bid for sheriff. He had been a U.S. Army Airborne trooper for three years and spent 17 years with the Tennessee Army National Guard.
Mr. Cupp said he hopes the public remembers that “the sheriff’s department has some very outstanding people there. And they don’t need to be besmirched by something that somebody else is accused of doing.”
Hamilton County Assistant District Attorney Boyd Patterson said whenever law enforcement officials are alleged to have committed crimes, it “gives a black eye to thousands of legitimate hard working officers and prosecutors.”
Defense attorney and former assistant district attorney Parke Masterson said it’s ironic that Sheriff Long “ran on cleaning up a corrupt department.”
“Police power is the greatest power we, as citizens, bestow. To give them that power and have it abused is the biggest insult possible to a free society,” Mr. Masterson said.
County Mayor Claude Ramsey said local elected officials still were in shock hours after hearing the news.
“It’s a sad day for Hamilton County,” he said.
Sunday Editor Chris Vass and Staff Writers Dave Flessner, Mike O’Neal and Pam Sohn contributed to this story.