Everyone was covering for Mike Gaw, ex-Cookeville cop says
Booze for the chief, cash for the governor
It took the FBI to move in on ticket-fixing in Putnam County because Mike Gaw has sources and friends in law enforcement to ensure no local problems. But speeding may not have been the worst violation covered by political influence, Bill Drossman says
Putnam Pit editor
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. [June 16, 1999] - While he headed the Drug Task Force, Cookeville Police Chief Bob Terry chatted with a known cocaine user, washed it down with free booze and called officers to see if friends were under narcotics investigations, an ex-cop says.

All the while, Terry was also charging the city for more overtime pay than any other officer on the force. All this was going on under the nose of District Attorney General Bill Gibson, for whom Terry worked. Ultimately, it was the FBI -- not the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation -- which Gibson frequently calls off local investigations -- that stepped in.

These close personal ties among drug users, politicians, contributors and police management in the three years since the firing of former Police Chief Richard Holt have raised anticipation of a much wider federal investigation into Mike Gaw's influence than the FBI's original inquiry into Gaw's possible role in fixing State Patrol speeding tickets in Court Clerk Lewis Coomer's office.

Terry allegedly had a close personal relationship with Gaw, someone public documents allege at one time had enough cocaine "to sprinkle on everyone in Putnam County." Terry also may have improperly contacted another officer outside the chain of command to inquire whether Gaw was under a narcotics investigation. Terry allegedly said he was worried it would embarrass Gaw.

District Attorney General Bill Gibson unsuccessfully prosecuted former City Councilman Don Wagnon three years ago for discussing a city traffic violation with the officer who issued it. But political influence within the Police Department is much more overt today and a Drug Task Force director attempting to give a political message to a fellow officer out of the chain of command does not seem to bother General Gibson.

Bill Drossman, who quit the Cookeville Police Department after four unhappy years effective June 9, told The Putnam Pit that he reported the Terry-Gaw relationship to former Police Chief Bill Benson and asked for an internal investigation, But to his knowledge Benson did not look into the allegation. In the meantime, Gaw filed a citizen's complaint against Drossman.

In fact, Drossman said, Terry was not alone in his inappropriate contact with Gaw. After a three-hour meeting about the Gaw-Terry relationship, Gaw telephoned City Manager Jim Shipley from City Councilman Steve Copeland's phone, indicating Gaw was also connected to the city's political structure.

Terry has not responded to questions regarding the report and the city has not made available records of any correspondence requested in a public records request. However, Captain Nathan Honeycutt said he was unsure where the written request from Drossman to Benson was. He readily offered information about a citizen's complaint against Drossman, which had not been requested. The complaint was brought by Mike Gaw. It was dismissed after an investigation.

"I wasn't offered an exit interview,"(1) Drossman told The Pit. "I was labeled as not a team player." Drossman called the Terry-Gaw relationship "inappropriate," and inconsistent with the oath a law officer takes.

Drossman said in an exclusive interview that on March 24, 1997, he was a guest speaker in former Chief Richard Holt's class at Tennessee Tech. The son of a State Trooper suggested that it was possible to "buy" a State Patrol job by paying a sum to a person, Drossman said. "The student didn't mention the name but he said the person was a top contributor to Gov. Sundquist's campaign." Drossman said he offered the name "Mike Gaw" and the student acknowledged it was correct.

Drossman also said that Terry, then a Cookeville police sergeant assigned to direct the Thirteenth Judicial District Drug Task Force, telephoned him at home on May 16, 1997, questioning whether Drossman and another officer were investigating Gaw. Terry allegedly said he was concerned that a drug investigation case against the friend would be "embarrassing" to Terry, Drossman told The Putnam Pit.

Drossman said that "a lot of things are wrong in the police department."

"I was hired under Chief Holt four years ago," he said. "I had just finished my 21st year of law enforcement. We wanted to lay back a little.

"The first sign of trouble was when I saw Major Fred White give a 'Bozo sign' behind Chief Holt's back. I didn't know they were looking for a way to get rid of Chief Holt."

Holt was later fired and filed a federal lawsuit against the city. Former City Councilman Bettye Vaden told The Pit in 1997 that Holt was "too progressive" for Cookeville after he turned city records over to the FBI.

"I have never seen such an intimidation factor. It trickles down through City Hall and the department heads."

Drossman said: "In my opinion there is a drug-related link to all this."

"What bothers me is that Bob Terry admits he has a close personal relationship with a person like Gaw.

"I took an oath as a police officer and I take it seriously," he said.

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1. According to the city's personnel manual,

Chapter 14, SECTION 12: Exit Interview

12.01 Before leaving the City, employees will be asked to complete an Exit Interview form and to be interviewed by the human resources director. The interview provides an opportunity for the employee to express himself and to speak freely about the City and his job. It is hoped that the exit interview will provide insights into possible improvements the City can make.

12.02 The information shared at the exit interview will in no way affect any reference information that the City of Cookeville will provide another employer.

12.03 The human resources director will provide the city manager with a copy of the Exit Interview form and a copy will become a permanent part of the employee's personnel file.