Don Whitson, an employee of the local court system who serves as the collector of court fines and fees, took out a petition from the Unicoi County Election Commission office on Feb. 5 to seek the office in this year’s election as an independent candidate. Whitson said that last Friday evening, the same day that an article on Whitson’s interest in the office ran in the Johnson City Press, a deputy with the UCSD hand-delivered a letter to his home. Whitson said this letter was dated Feb. 7, addressed to him and signed by UCSD Chief Deputy Frank Rogers, and advised him to turn in departmental equipment and warned him against continuing to state he was an investigator.
“It has come to my attention that you regularly represent yourself as an investigator with the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department. Furthermore, that you display identification and or badges identifying yourself the same,” the letter states. “It is this agencies (sic) understanding that you work for the courts and not the sheriff’s office. Please surrender any and all identification or badges which identifies you as such. Additionally, please return any equipment such as radio, scanner, cell phone, weapons, or other that belongs to the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Office by Friday, February 14, 2014.
“In closing I want to caution you that criminal impersonating a law enforcement officer is strictly prohibited, defined in TCA 39-16-301. Future display markings identifying you as a Unicoi County Sheriff’s Deputy is prohibited by law.”
However, Whitson said Tuesday that his wearing of a badge and carrying of a gun into the Unicoi County Courthouse was never an issue under the county’s former sheriff and the current administration — that is until his intention to seek the office of sheriff became known.
“I was expecting to lose my badge and gun,” Whitson said. “I was expecting to be cut from the sheriff’s department. But I was not expecting for them to go insinuating that I wasn’t working for the sheriff’s department. Why else would I have a badge if I wasn’t working for the sheriff’s department? I was working for the sheriff’s department. Everybody recognized that I was working for the sheriff’s department. The sheriff told me to continue that, and I was.”
Whitson said he returned the items requested in Rogers’ letter on Monday, but he said his position as an investigator has not changed since 2007.
Whitson began working with the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department in the late 1980s under then-sheriff Bob Whitson working as the department’s chief investigator. He remained with the department through the late 1990s. After several years off, he returned to the department to work under then-sheriff Kent Harris to begin work as an investigator working primarily to locate individuals owing county fines, court costs or those wanted on outstanding arrest warrants.
Harris wrote a letter to other county officials after Whitson returned to the department to make them aware of Whitson’s role.
“Effective 11-26-2007, Investigator Don Whitson will be working with the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department,” Harris’ letter stated. “Primarily he will be working on collecting drug funds and formulating the amount of drug funds due to the county. Please cooperate fully with him in this endeavor as he attempts to accomplish this.”
In a Wednesday email, Harris stated that he did hire Whitson as an investigator in 2007 to collect fines and court costs and individuals wanted on warrants.
“Don was a great benefit to my department,” Harris wrote. “Don also attended monthly training classes and departmental meetings we had and was trained on all courthouse security equipment. I know that between 2007-2012, when I retired for health reasons, Don had collected over a million dollars in fines, court courts and had located around 100 people we had outstanding warrants on. This money was a big help to the county overall, it kept the county from having to raise taxes. Don from my understanding is still employed in the same capacity.”
Whitson said his status as investigator has not changed since that time, even though his salary is no longer part of the sheriff’s department’s budget. Whitson said he feels the letter was sent in an attempt to push him into withdrawing from the 2014 race for county sheriff and keep the field narrowed.
“It’s obvious what they’re trying to, it’s very obvious,” he said Tuesday.
Whitson also said he has had numerous people, both inside and outside Unicoi County, to voice their support of his run for sheriff. He said he has no intentions of backing away from the race.
“I’m in it until the end,” Whitson said.
Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said Wednesday afternoon that the letter delivered to Whitson had nothing to do with his announcing his interest in taking Hensley’s job.
“I have no problem with Don Whitson personally,” Hensley said. “As a matter of fact, we’ve been friends, we still are friends. I could care less who runs for sheriff. It’s a free country. Anybody can run for sheriff, or any office as far as that goes, anytime they want to.”
After Hensley assumed the office of Unicoi County sheriff in 2012, the line item for Whitson’s salary was moved from the sheriff’s department’s budget to the Circuit Court Clerk’s budget. However, Hensley said he did advise Whitson he could continue to wear his investigator’s badge, as Whitson said this aided him in the collection of court fines and fees, despite Whitson never working as a criminal investigator under Hensley. Although Whitson’s salary had been transferred to the Circuit Court Clerk’s budget, Hensley said the sheriff’s department was continuing to pay his cellular phone bill.
Hensley said the decision to take Whitson’s badge and equipment was made before Whitson took out a petition to seek the office of sheriff, but action was delayed until Friday due to Hensley having to undergo a recent medical procedure. Before Whitson took out the petition, Hensley said he had been getting reports from “several people” that Whitson was “politicking” for another local office that will be decided in the 2014 election while on the job and wearing a sheriff’s department badge.
Although Hensley said Whitson is paid from the Circuit Court Clerk’s budget, his wearing of a sheriff’s department badge while encouraging people to vote for a candidate in another office could reflect back upon the sheriff’s department.
“My officers know that I won’t put up with this,” Hensley said. “While they’re on the job, they’re not to be politicking for anybody. Not only that, I have to run my own race, and that’s the reason I don’t want any of my deputies, when they’re working or in uniform, politicking for any candidate. That reflects back on me. ... My officers are instructed not to politick for anybody for any office while they are on duty.”
Hensley also said he received word from some of his deputies that Whitson was attempting to get their signatures on his petition for the office of sheriff.
“Now I won’t put up with that,” Hensley said. “I don’t want anyone putting my deputies in the middle. They can vote for whoever they want to, I don’t care, but the thing of it was they work around him, they work in the courts, and they don’t want to make him mad. “