Controversial Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson defeated in GOP primary

Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson, a former state representative whose term as chief of county law enforcement has been mired by controversy, was defeated in Tuesday’s Republican primary by Steve Lawson, who resigned as head of criminal investigations under Watson earlier this year.

Lawson had 8,179 votes; Watson 7,004. There’s no Democrat on the ballot, so Lawson is assured of winning the office in the Aug. 2 general election.

From the Times Free Press report:

Lawson promised to bring integrity and trust back to an office tarnished by nearly two years’ worth of criminal investigations, financial probes and a 12-count felony indictment against Watson.

Watson was a longtime sheriff’s office employee who was fired in 2011 for falsifying time sheets. He ran for and was elected to the Tennessee House in 2006, but stepped down and defeated Republican sheriff Jim Ruth in the 2014 elections.

Watson hired Lawson, with more than 20 years in law enforcement and then serving as chief of the 10th Judicial District Drug Task Force, to run the criminal investigations division.

During that time, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reported the department’s arrest and crime-solving rates climbed sharply.

Last week, Watson said in a campaign announcement the department in 2017 had the most arrests and highest crime-solving rate in Bradley County history. He cited 12 percent growth in drug-related arrests and said the sheriff’s office ranked fourth statewide for burglaries solved and seventh for total offenses cleared.

Lawson countered that all those successes took place under his leadership as captain of criminal investigations.

He resigned from that position in January and announced his candidacy. He vowed to be a full-time sheriff and avoid conflicts of interest.

That was a reference to a series of controversies and scandals involving Watson, from allegations of improper use of county credit cards and money to using his influence to help get a woman friend out of jail and to support his wife’s job as a bail bonding agent. Under his leadership, the sheriff’s office has been sued more than two dozen times, for causes ranging from excessive force to inmate deaths. He was indicted last year on 12 felony charges related to forging titles on automobiles he bought in Florida and sold in Tennessee.

However, those charges were dropped after he paid taxes on the cars. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation failed to find any wrongdoing after investigating Watson for 17 months, and the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office also cleared the department of financial misdeeds.

Lawson won endorsements from the Cleveland police chief, the Fraternal Order of Police and the four living prior sheriffs.

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