Justice, Putnam County style

TBI refuses to investigate unauthorized jailer's fee charges after deputy director talks with DA's office
But state comptroller's county auditors are on the job this week

 of the Putnam Pit staff
© 1997 The Putnam Pit, Inc.
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (Dec. 18, 1997) -- Within "a month or so" the Office of County Audit will make public its findings on whether Circuit Court Clerk Lewis Coomer illegally collected thousands of dollars from felons incarcerated in Putnam County Jail, Director of County Audit Richard Norment told The Pit on Wednesday. The Pit raised the issue in April when a records search discovered Coomer collected the money for several years before the legislature authorized clerks to collect per diem "jailer's fees." Coomer may still face a federal probe and scrutiny by the IRS. C.D. Norman's question of the week: Why has District Attorney General William E. Gibson authorized a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe of Putnam County Assessor of Property Byron Looper for unspecified reasons, but refused to call for a criminal investigation into documented illegal collection of jailers' fees by Coomer? Asks norman: 'Has the TBI become a tool with which to help friends and intimidate enemies? Has Dick Nixon risen from the grave?'
One day after Deputy TBI Director Rob Reeves said he would look into The Putnam Pit's information that thousands of dollars in illegal charges were levied by Circuit Court Clerk Lewis Coomer against felony prisoners incarcerated in Putnam County jail, Reeves did an about face.

Reeves said that the illegal charges were not a criminal matter, but civil, and that he was reassured of that after speaking with District Attorney General Bill Gibson's office.

Coomer charged the fees at least four years before the 1995  legislature authorization that $18 a day could be charged by counties to the prisoners themselves in addition to reimbursement from the state for the cost of housing them.

Asked to provide authorization, Coomer offered a photocopy of Tennessee statute 8-26-106,  Reimbursement of Jailer for Keeping State Prisoners. That law makes it the duty of the county clerk to "promptly transmit to the judicial cost accountant a certified copy" of a resolution by the county legislative body fixing jailers' fees, but it does not authorize the clerk to collect the money from the prisoners themselves. On the contrary, the law is meant to set the amount the state will pay to counties for housing state prisoners.

Coomer at first blamed Sheriff Jerry Abston for the charges, but Abston said he knows of  no authorization prior to 1995 and that he never received any check from Coomer to pay for felony inmate housing.

The TBI needs the permission of District Attorney General Gibson to enter a full-blown investigation, but Gibson refused to meet with Pit Editor Geoff Davidian to receive evidence.

On Oct. 20, two Putnam Pit staffers went through more than 17 years of county records -- every law passed and minutes from every meeting -- and found no record of any action by the county authorizing such charges.

Abston said that if the money was collected it should be returned.

Nevertheless, Coomer insisted the County Commission passed a resolution in the early 1980s authorizing him to collect per diem fees from felony prisoners. Putnam County Commissioner Bill Rogers also told The Pit that he thought the county had passed a resolution in the early 1980s authorizing the circuit court clerk's office to assess the fee. Coomer claims he does not have a copy of the resolution on file because "it was such a long time ago."

There also is no record of where the money went. Coomer said the money was turned over to the County, but jailers' fees are not a separate budget item.

If Coomer is collecting money, he should have a certified authorization, County Clerk Ruth Ann Woolbright said. Coomer insisted there was authority, but he did not have a certified copy of the authorization.

Coomer promised to produce evidence that the collections were legitimate, but what he offered, TCA 8-26-106, offers no such authorization.

In 1995, the state passed an inmate reimbursement act allowing counties to collect money from convicted felons to cover "maintenance and support" of the person while that person was an inmate, and for certain other expenses. The law provides that the county executive may file a civil action to seek reimbursement. However, public records show that Coomer charged jail fees to state felony prisoners prior to 1995 -- as far back as 1990 -- and that he credited the fees and noted they were "paid" for those who complained. Coomer claims he was authorized to collect jail fees but people just would not pay, so he wrote them off as paid.

County Attorney Jeff Jones said that after reviewing state law Sec. 41-11-103,  which was enacted in 1995, no county legislative authority is required for counties to seek reimbursement  for costs incurred by persons housed in county jails after the statute was passed.

"It is my opinion that the authority to assess per diem fees comes from the State of Tennessee as opposed to the County," Jones said. That authority came in 1995.

The county did pass other ordinances regarding fees, such as one in 1984 authorizing misdemeanor prisoners to be charged $10 per day, and authorizing the clerk of the court to collect the money. In 1989, the county passed a resolution fixing an amount of $18 to be reimbursed by the state for each felony prisoner each day of incarceration in Putnam County jail, but does not allow collection from prisoners.

However, in 1992 Ronnie King was charged $3,600 in jail fees. In April of 1996, after King allegedly complained, Coomer credited $3,600 to clear King's outstanding balance.

In 1991, Grant Smithers was charged $2,162 in jail fees. Sometime later, the exact date is unknown, Coomer credited Smithers' account $1,080.

Asked why he forgave such a large debt, Coomer said, "They just didn't pay the jail fees so we credited them to basically write off the remaining debt. No one ever goes to jail for not paying jail fees, but there's nothing we can do about it."

However, according to Coomer's own records, Ronnie King made 13 payments totaling over $1,900 toward his jail fees when he confronted Coomer and had the jailers' fee dropped, indicating King was paying his costs.

Grant Smithers made regular payments for 21 months, indicating Coomer's own records show the debt was not uncollectable.

In 1990, Craig Farris was charged $4,888 in jail fees. To date, none of his money has been credited or refunded. In an interview Farris said, "If they owe me the money I want it, if they don't then they just don't. I don't know if they owe it to me or not."

Farris' attorney, Bill Cameron, said that if Farris contacted him and asked for the money back, he would raise the issue with Coomer.

Farris claims that at the time he was incarcerated, people at the jail indicated that they had never seen jail fees charged before. According to Farris, they said, "Heck Craig, you should have spent six more dollars and stayed at the Holiday Inn."

If there is no authorization,  the county could owe  money to all the felons who paid  before 1995.

Although the charging of illegal fees to prisoners is a civil matter to Reeves and Gibson, they have nevertheless found cause to sic the state's investigative apparatus on Putnam County Assessor of Property Byron Looper, a politically unpopular Republican who is not accused of criminal activity.

Some wonder whether Gibson has the political strength and integrity to allow an investigation of a good ol' boy like Coomer this close to an election. Gibson, who is up for reelection next year, has chosen to not investigate several other criminal investigations, such as the Wayne Bandy case in which a police captain held a gun to another officer's head,  while failing to get convictions on other high profile cases, such as the indictment of Cookeville Councilman Don Wagnon.