Robert Arnold says he didn’t fire former Detective Jim Tramel, now a sheriff’s candidate, for political reasons in June 2013.
But Tramel’s troubles began that May when he told the sheriff he intended to run for office and when Arnold became suspicious that the detective was bad-mouthing the sheriff’s office and leaking information to the press, according to court documents.
Ultimately, Tramel was terminated over allegations he made sexually harassing statements, although a June 6, 2013 report of action says he failed to maintain a satisfactory and harmonious relationship with fellow employees.
In a deposition Arnold gave in January for a federal lawsuit filed by Tramel over his firing, the first-term sheriff says, “there was never a termination for politicalness. There was never a – he was terminated because he failed to appeal the decision that was made. So, therefore, he accepted the decision because he would never be terminated for politicalness, as his former partner, Ralph Mayercik, nor Barry Jones was ever terminated, the former sheriff’s son. You know, I’ve always kept the politics out of the sheriff’s office in the fact of wanting to terminate somebody.”
Arnold, a Republican, Tramel and Dale Armour, both Independents, and Democrat Bill Kennedy, a former sheriff’s office major, are squared off in Thursday’s election, one filled with years of sheriff’s office strife. Mayercik, who planned to run for sheriff, resigned from the sheriff’s office Jan. 31 after an internal investigation and was later forced out of the Republican primary because the party refused to accept his GOP credentials.
Murfreesboro attorney Terry Fann, who is representing Tramel in his lawsuit against Arnold and Rutherford County, questions the sheriff extensively in the deposition, several times pointing out unclear procedures, failure to follow protocol on paperwork and discrepancies in the reasons for Tramel’s termination. Fann has filed a rebuttal to the county’s request for summary judgment and demanded a trial after the court rejected two county requests for dismissal.
In the deposition, Arnold acknowledges that no decommission notice was prepared for Tramel because he had already turned in his car, weapon, IDs and other sheriff’s office items. It was a decommissioning without paperwork, he says.
The paper trail on his release is hazy, too. Maj. Bill Sharp recommends a transfer to patrol, but Deputy Chief Virgil Gammon marks “no” and writes in termination on the paperwork. Then, Chief Deputy Randy Garrett marks “yes” on the form, seeming to agree with the transfer, but Arnold says that means to recommend firing.
Tramel did not appeal the matter, but the deposition shows he was only given the chance to appeal Sharp’s recommendation for transfer out of the detective division. Arnold contends he set up the appeals process to be fairer to employees.
Asked pointedly by Fann if he inquired whether anyone on his command staff notified Tramel that he was being investigated for violating a rule on discrimination and harassment, Arnold says, “I was not fully aware of this entire investigation until they brought me the paperwork to sign it.”
That stemmed from a conversation Tramel had with Capt. David Hailey in which Hailey told Tramel he’d heard rumors that Tramel wasn’t being a team player, wasn’t answering his phone and was working only regular hours.
Tramel responded that he’d heard rumors that Hailey had a relationship with a female sheriff’s office employee years earlier and slept on the couch of another female sheriff’s office employee after a Christmas party. That initiated the sexual harassment complaint when Hailey brought the matter to an investigation, according to the deposition.
Arnold experienced a similar situation when he was transferred from the sheriff’s office to the Rutherford County Correctional Work Center in 2010 after it became clear he was running for sheriff. The sheriff says he called Tramel into his office May 13, 2013 after Tramel told his wife at the Murfreesboro Athletic Center that he planned to run for office.
“I wanted to see if he had the (courage) enough to sit in front of me and say, yes, I plan it,” Arnold says.
During the conversation, Tramel tells him he disagrees with how he spends money. Arnold explains that out of about $32 million in the sheriff’s budget, only $2 million is discretionary, according to the deposition.
Tramel challenges the sheriff to run against him as an Independent in this year’s election. Arnold says he responded, “And I told him he could ‘F’ off, that I would not run as an Independent, that, you know, I’ll dance with the one that brought me and that was the Republican Party, and I’m not going to turn my back on them.”
During that same conversation, Arnold also bets Tramel $100 that he could get the support of state Rep. Rick Womick for sheriff.
In the deposition, Arnold says he ordered an internal investigation of Tramel “because we had leaks going on within the department … and I had reason to believe that Mr. Tramel was the leak.”
Arnold says he received information that Tramel was at Smyrna Police Department “trashing me, bad-talking me” and criticizing spending in the drug fund, on take-home cars and with other matters. Within a couple of weeks, a Daily News Journal article ran about drug fund expenses.
Arnold contends information in the article “was misrepresented in our opinion, and the newspaper ran a retraction after Capt. Jason Mathis and narcotics detectives went to the newspaper and met with the former editor.
Former DNJ Editor Clay Morgan wrote the sheriff an apology letter, Arnold says. “It’s in the front, top drawer of my desk,” he says, and adds, “Because I like to look at it every once in a while.”
In another meeting with Tramel, Sheriff Arnold asks him if he is the leak for The DNJ article about the drug fund. Arnolds says Tramel got “very hostile” and was adamant that it wasn’t him.
Tramel continued being defensive and hotheaded and talked about running for sheriff, Arnold says, noting “Because he talked about transferring and that, and I told him based on what happened to me, that that’s probably – that’s what would happen to them.”
Changes in rules
Arnold also says in the deposition that he instituted a standard operating procedure requiring all sheriff’s office personnel who plan to run for office to notify the sheriff within a certain number of days of the qualifying deadline.
In addition, he eliminated an employee evaluation system because he felt it was ineffective and was an “unfunded mandate” by the Rutherford County Commission.
Arnold felt his transfer from school resource officer at La Vergne High School to jailer was unjustified. The sheriff says his job at La Vergne High “was plum crazy” because he was pulled in lots of directions and his supervisors wanted him to teach more classes.
“How can I teach more classes when I’ve got to fill out theft reports or I’m breaking up fights or I’ve got a prostitution rings going on in the bathroom?” he says.
His former supervisor, Kerry Nelson, initiated a disciplinary action against him regarding failure to investigate a report of a gun at the La Vergne High night school.
Former SRO Division Maj. Bill Kennedy wanted to fire Arnold, but former Sheriff Truman Jones decided to let him transfer to the jail because he had a young child and he didn’t want him to be unemployed.
Not long after that, Arnold took legal action against the county over the demotion and then decided to run for office and was transferred to the work center. His lawsuit was derailed by a court ruling on another case in Bartlett, according to the deposition.
Arnold says Tramel also was bitter toward Kennedy about being transferred from an SRO position at Lascassas Elementary School to patrol in 2001.
“He’s not one of either one of our fans,” Arnold says of Kennedy. “You know, we’re not going to go drink a beer with him or anything like that. There is not too many people that will.”
Discussion in the deposition also focuses on spending and Fann asks the sheriff about budgets increasing by $6 million during his term.
“I said I would be a good steward of taxpayers’ dollars, I believe,” Arnold says. He later notes, “I never said I would save taxpayers dollars.” Arnold contends he had to deal with the federal mandate that implied he had to create an Office of Information and Technology.
Arnold also admits there was a discrepancy in his Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training file. When he initially got certified, he checked the box asking if he had ever been arrested. Arnold admits he was arrested on a public drunk charge after going to a college frat party when he was about 20. When he was recertified by P.O.S.T. to run for office in 2010, he says he did not check the box asking he had been arrested because the commission told him he didn’t need to.