Critics Call Honorary Tennessee Badges a 'Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free Card'
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- State officials say a program that gives honorary badges and photo identification cards to certain individuals is a way to recognize their contributions in Tennessee, but critics believe it's an invitation for the well-connected to brandish their influence and try to avoid getting tickets.
The photo ID is an exact replica of a Tennessee trooper's ID - only the word ''honorary'' at the bottom of the card sets it apart. Many come with a small gold badge in a leather wallet.
The badges and IDs are handed out as part of the state's ''honorary captain'' program. A review by The Tennessean newspaper found that those getting them are among an exclusive group of campaign donors, political insiders and friends of the powerful.
The paper also discovered there's no oversight and the program has no provision to screen honorary captains for criminal backgrounds or take away the credentials of those who break the law. Two people convicted of crimes and one under indictment remain as honorary captains, according to the paper.
''It's the message that it sends to citizens that there's a different set of rules,'' said David Raybin, attorney for Nashville's Fraternal Order of Police. ''There's some who get a get-out-of-jail-free card.''
State Safety Commissioner Fred Phillips said the 30-year-old program is legitimate, but he planned to review the practice following questions raised by the paper.
''I want to emphasize it's an honorary,'' Phillips said. ''I have not issued anything that carries any legal authority.''
Of the 360 people given the perk since 2002, the paper found that it has gone to sports stars and entertainers, plus 19 current and former staffers and appointees of Gov. Phil Bredesen, three relatives of Deputy Gov. Dave Cooley and a dozen elected officials in Washington County, where Phillips was sheriff before joining Bredesen's cabinet.
University of Tennessee head football coach Phillip Fulmer said he got his honorary ID when the state highway patrol asked him to stop by its headquarters on a trip to Nashville.
''I thought it was just a nice gesture because I did that 'Booze It and Lose It''' public service announcement for the state, Fulmer said.
Stefanie Lindquist, a professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University, said the long-standing practice carries the appearance of a legal perk for a select few, which she feels is particularly ''unseemly'' following the governor's tougher ethics laws and the recent bribery sting that led to the arrests of several state lawmakers.
''The rule of law requires that laws are applied equally,'' Lindquist said. ''When it appears that people have some special connection that they can end run around that process, it undermines the public's perception that the law is being applied with an even hand.''
One case that raises questions is that of Gladys Crain, a longtime West Tennessee political power broker who was one of the first people to be made honorary captains by the Bredesen administration. Because there is no background check, no one apparently knew Crain had pleaded guilty in 1981 to a federal charge in connection with a scheme to rig bids in a state highway construction project.
Crain has six relatives who have been named honorary captains under Bredesen, including a grandson who currently faces a DUI charge.
According to police reports, Ricky J. McWilliams was pulled over in January after a state trooper noticed his vehicle swerving. The 31-year-old McWilliams told the trooper: ''I'm a trooper, too. I've got a badge just like yours. You can't treat me like this. I will tell the colonel on you.''
Police said McWillliams' blood-alcohol test registered twice the legal limit. He was indicted by a grand jury in June and is awaiting trial. He has not been charged with impersonating a police officer and remains an honorary captain.
''He will be until there's a disposition in the case,'' Phillips said.
Despite questions raised about the captains program, the governor's office contends it's honorary and nothing else.
''These are souvenirs that have been given out for 30 years as I understand it,'' Bredesen said in a statement issued by his spokeswoman. ''I haven't heard of any problems. And I expect that Commissioner Phillips is exercising the appropriate oversight and controls.''
Huge potential for abuse.
Tennessee Troopers Who Helped 'Honorary Captain' Tapped For Promotion
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Two state troopers who helped an ''honorary captain'' in the Tennessee Highway Patrol get his drunken-driving case dismissed have been recommended for promotion.
The recommendation from state Safety Department Commissioner Fred Phillips came just three days after Gov. Phil Bredesen told the department to stop issuing honorary captain ID cards and badges.
The badges and cards were given to political insiders, campaign donors and celebrities and were essentially identical to those carried by state troopers. Critics called them get-out-of-jail-free cards for the privileged.
Bredesen ordered an end to the practice Aug. 8, a day after The Tennessean reported that 360 people had been issued honorary captainships dating from 2002. Nineteen current or former Bredesen staffers or appointees were among the group.
The newspaper reported Sunday that DUI charges against honorary captain Ricky J. Williams of Halls, Tenn., were dismissed May 27 after Tennessee Highway Patrol Sgts. Tansil Phillips and Tim Holloway testified on McWilliams' behalf.
McWilliams, 31, is the grandson of longtime Democratic insider Gladys Crain, chairwoman of Bredesen's 2002 campaign in Lauderdale County.
According to a Highway Patrol incident report, McWilliams was stopped Jan. 14 in Lauderdale County after his vehicle was seen swerving. His blood-alcohol test registered 0.16 - twice the legal limit, according to court testimony.
During the May hearing, McWilliams' attorney called Tansil Phillips and Holloway to refute the testimony of the trooper who made the DUI stop. The main focus of the defense was to show that the stop was made on private property, and thus the ticket issued improper, according a tape of the hearing.
After the charges were dismissed, a local district attorney resurrected the case and a grand jury indicted McWilliams in June after hearing the evidence.
Tansil Phillips and Holloway filed applications for promotions to lieutenant last spring, and both listed members of the McWilliams' family as job references on their applications, records show.
Commissioner Fred Phillips recommended the two sergeants for promotion Thursday. One of them was selected even though he scored worse than four other applicants who were not selected for promotion, according to The Tennessean.
Department of Safety spokeswoman Melissa McDonald said the THP sergeants were subpoenaed and were required to testify in the McWilliams case. She said their promotions are based on a variety of factors, such as job performance, length of service and their scores on the promotion tests and interviews.
McDonald said she didn't know enough about the specifics of the case to comment, but challenged any suggestion that their testimony in the McWilliams case would have had anything to do with their promotions.
''If you're implying that this was the main factor in consideration of their promotions, then I would have to say no,'' McDonald said. ''It could be coincidental. These are both people who have been with the department a long time.''