Rutherford County paid nearly a quarter-million-dollar settlement to former Sheriff's Maj. Tommy Thompson after he dismissed a lawsuit claiming ex-Sheriff Robert Arnold wrongfully fired him in 2016, records show.
Thompson sued Feb. 16 in U.S. District Court claiming the county, sheriff's office and Arnold violated his constitutional rights and used unlawful employment practices against him. Arnold fired Thompson after he wrote a letter urging him not to fire anyone who might be a "whistleblower" in connection with an investigation into corruption at the sheriff's office.
The former county jail administrator, who was fired in February 2016, recently received a $224,999 settlement payment from the county, according to the Rutherford County Budget & Finance Office.
Thompson dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice March 14 in federal court before any defendant in the case could be served or file a motion to dismiss the matter, documents show. He was represented by Nashville attorney Jerry Martin.
Thompson applied unsuccessfully for the interim sheriff's post after Arnold pleaded guilty to federal charges stemming from an illicit e-cigarettes operation at the county jail. He started working at the sheriff's office in 2013 after a 29-year career with the U.S. Marshals Service, coming on as a major and taking over jail administration July 1, 2013 and interacting regularly with Arnold.
During his time as jail administrator, Arnold, former Chief Administrative Deputy Joe Russell and Arnold's uncle, John Vanderveer started running an e-cigarette company at the jail, "unbeknownst" to Thompson and "in violation of federal law," according to the lawsuit.
Arnold, Russell and Vanderveer all pleaded guilty this year in connection with their plan to profit from JailCigs, LLC, without taking bids, signing a contract or giving Rutherford County a commission from sales.
Thompson was "generally aware in late 2014 and early 2014 of JailCigs' presence in the Rutherford County jail. However, it was not until April of 2015 that he learned from Deputy Chief Virgil Gammon about Sheriff Arnold's financial interest in JailCigs or the unlawful manner in which Sheriff Arnold had brought the company into the jail," the lawsuit states.
Two days after he found out about the sheriff's involvement with JailCigs, a TV station ran a story about the situation with an interview of Arnold. Several days later, Arnold called Thompson into his office for a meeting with now-former Chief Deputy Randy Garrett, who was a confidant of Arnold. "The purpose of the meeting was to confront (Thompson) about whether he was the source of the news story," the lawsuit states.
Advice not followed
Asked what he thought about the situation with JailCigs, Thompson told Arnold he could not "effectively" lead the sheriff's office any longer and that he had gotten bad advice about the JailCigs business. Thompson also told Arnold he should deal with the matter before the U.S. Attorney's Office found out about it, according to the lawsuit.
In another meeting later that day, Arnold visited Thompson's office and told him he was the "most honest" man he knew. Thompson suggested he talk with a group of ministers, but Arnold didn't follow the advice and "instead took the position that he had done nothing wrong and that the investigation was a political witch hunt," the lawsuit says.
Rumors circulated in the sheriff's officer that Arnold made a "hit list" of people he suspected of being informants and was planning on firing them. Thompson, "bothered" by the idea Arnold was going to fire people "to cover up his own misdeeds," sent the former sheriff a letter advising him "in the strongest possible terms not to retaliate" against sheriff's office personnel because of the laws against taking action against "whistleblowers," according to the lawsuit.
In addition, he wrote, "As you can see you would be exposing taxpayers to serious civil liabilities if you fire someone for the sole reason they revealed what they perceived as government waste, fraud, abuse, or criminal actions," he wrote.
He copied County Attorney Evan Cope on the email letter, and Cope responded a short time later, "Tommy is absolutely right, and I agree with him 100%."
Arnold didn't immediately fire anyone, but later in the spring of 2015, he and Garrett "accosted" Thompson and accused him of talking about the JailCigs situation with a sheriff's lieutenant, according to the lawsuit.
TBI and FBI agents raided the jail twice in 2015, and TBI agents interviewed Thompson, who ultimately testified before a grand jury, according to the lawsuit.
Putting on pressure
In September 2015, Arnold fired Deputy Chief Virgil Gammon, who later filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the county and received a $350,000 settlement.
After that, Arnold started taking away Thompson's job responsibilities and training opportunities, jeopardizing his Police Officer Standards and Training certification, in addition to ordering a review of all email between Thompson and Gammon.
In January 2016, Chief Deputy Keith Lowery, who is still with the office, gave Thompson a written reprimand on six matters and indicated it had not followed "normal protocols," according to the lawsuit. He also indicated it could be made to go away, the lawsuit says.
A week later, Arnold told Thompson he should resign if was unhappy with his job, but Thompson told him he would have to fire him if he wanted him gone.
Gammon filed suit against Arnold, the sheriff's office and Rutherford County on Feb. 19, 2016, referencing Thompson by name and quoting from the letter he sent Arnold. The former sheriff came to Thompson's office that day and fired him, saying it was because of two recent suicides at the jail.
Thompson had submitted detailed reports about the suicides and had not been written up or disciplined for them. He also had complained about understaffing at the jail but Arnold had refused to seek more funding or shift resources to deal with the problem, according to the lawsuit.
Arnold, Russell and Vanderveer are awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges in early 2017. Arnold, who is being held in a West Tennessee facility, is scheduled for sentencing May 8 but is requesting an earlier date, according to court documents.