The Tennessee Highway Patrol is in charge of keeping state roads safe, and that often means keeping an eye on trucks and trucking companies.
That is why one lawmaker calls it a conflict of interest for state troopers to ask for money from the very companies they are supposed to police, and even the head of the THP now admits this shouldn't have happened.
When they are not patrolling the roads, state troopers sometimes get together to talk about ways to improve public safety. This year, the THP is hosting a national conference for the first time, and it needed a way to pay for it.
"The way we raised the money was not to our liking, and we're going to take steps to make sure that doesn't happen again," said THP Col. Tracy Trott.
The Channel 4 I-Team found emails sent between THP employees that discuss plans to solicit donations to cover the cost of the upcoming Uniformed Safety Education Officers Workshop conference.
The department raised nearly $40,000 from companies, lawyers and even from a judge. Nearly $17,000 came from transportation and trucking companies alone.
"I am hoping we can get some help, because I know how you and your company are dedicated to safety after working with you for several years now," wrote a THP sergeant in an email to one such company. "If you are able to make a contribution contact me so I can pick it up."
Judging by the dates and times stamped on those emails, it appears troopers were doing their fundraising while on duty.
The Channel 4 I-Team asked State Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, if he believes this action was a conflict of interest.
"It clearly is," he said. "Our government is here to protect the people on the highways among others, and they're supposed to look out for the people. Obviously, they're completely compromised if they're asking trucking companies to provide money to fund a conference or any other special need. It's just completely inappropriate."
Trott said the department itself didn't receive any of that money. Rather, he said all donors made their checks out directly to the USEOW, the organization in charge of the conference.
"We're trying to promote safety, and we're trying to do a good thing. Do we like the appearance of it? No, we don't, and that's what we want to take steps to avoid in the future," Trott said.
The Channel 4 I-Team's investigation also prompted a memo from Bill Gibbons, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.
"No employee of the department is to solicit any private individual or entity to make a financial contribution or in kind donations beyond a nominal value," Gibbon said in the memo.
"The question is where was the commissioner before Channel 4 uncovered this story? Who is in charge of this department before you brought this to everybody's attention?" Stewart said. "The money should absolutely be returned to these companies who probably felt pressured to provide it in the first place."
Trott said that's not going to happen, because he doesn't want to leave taxpayers on the hook for the conference.
Trott added his troopers will not give anyone consideration just because they helped the department sponsor a conference.
However, Stewart said keeping the money is questionable.
"They should be leading the charge toward ethical government, not going up to the very edge of the line, which they clearly did in this case, if not over," Stewart said.
The THP said, from here on out, it will use its non-profit foundation that was just established to handle its fundraising. That way, state troopers are not placed in what could appear as compromising situations, such as soliciting donations.
Copyright 2013 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.
WWBT-TV NBC 12
P.O. Box 12
On Your Side
Video and Pics