Watching the watchers: 10 Tennesseans fight against corruption in Rutherford County


Photo courtesy of TAC

In a culture saturated by stories of superheroes and vigilantes saving the world from evil government officials and shady corporations, a small group of Tennesseans have taken the stories to the real world – albeit in a much more legal way, and with considerably less acrobatics.

Meet the Tennesseans Against Corruption, or TAC. Comprised of just 10 members, this tenacious group has been working to take down corrupt officials throughout Tennessee since 2015. Their most notable case: the ousting of Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold in a years-long corruption scheme that rocked Rutherford County back in 2016.

On May 21, 2015, Arnold became the subject of an FBI and TBI raid related to a probe into financial irregularities, due to his involvement with JailCigs, an e-cigarette company he owned. He sold e-cigarettes exclusively to prisoners within his own system. After a long and twisted fight for the truth, Arnold plead guilty in January 2017  to wire fraud, honest service fraud and extortion. His conviction was only three out of the 14 federal grand jury indictments targeting Arnold, his uncle John Vanderveer, and former sheriff’s administration chief Joe Russell for illegally profiting thousands of dollars off of inmates. Arnold was sentenced to 50 months in a federal prison near Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.

This investigation and indictment would not have been possible without the tremendous efforts TAC went through to ensure the public knew of Arnold’s misdeeds.

In light of Arnold’s possible early release in May 2019, TAC’s mission to stop corruption has come to the public eye once again – and if you ask them, the fight is far from over.

If one were to pass a TAC member on the street, you probably wouldn’t even notice: contrary to the high-tech, fast-paced lifestyle portrayed in movies and comics, these justice fighters don’t look like undercover agents prepared to strike. In reality, these members are every-day, hard-working Tennesseans in varying walks of life.  

Dressed in a practical brown jacket and comfortable jeans, TAC member and MTSU master’s student James Gann quietly sipped his coffee as he recounted the struggles of battling the Arnold case. Beside him, fellow TAC member Steve Lane, dressed in a similar manner, told his side of the fight in measured tones.

The fire in their eyes, however, could not be tempered by their calm demeanors.

“I didn’t want to get involved initially,” Gann said, remembering the early days of the investigation. “Even outside the fact that he was a sitting sheriff and was very popular; it didn’t seem my wheelhouse.”

But other like-minded people, later to become TAC members, presented evidence of the lawsuits that were filed against Arnold, and Gann started to get on board.

“I’m like, ‘Alright, you guys are right,” he said. “We’ve got to go after this guy. Now, let’s figure out a way to do it.’”

The way to do it, they decided, was through a relatively unknown facet of Tennessee law known as the ouster suit.

“Ouster suits are very rare things,” Lane said. “They have not happened often in Tennessee. They are only successful half the time.”

“It’s a very high bar to meet,” Gann added.

Ouster suits, according to Article 7, Section 1 of the Tennessee Constitution, are suits that can be brought forward in which any “county officers shall be removed from office for malfeasance or neglect of duty,” due to a number of very specific offenses – and a number of them which Arnold directly violated.

According to TAC’s mission statement, “With an Ouster suit, 10 citizens can remove a corrupt official from office, restoring power to the people and accountability to those who serve us.”

“It is our desire and goal to teach other Tennesseans how to use this powerful tool for its intended purpose, to ensure integrity in our public offices,” the website continued.

“I had grown tired of seeing elected officials who had gotten into trouble use their promise to resign as a bargaining chip to get cushy plea agreements,” Lane said, the passion evident in his voice.  “Because you know if you got in trouble, you couldn’t just go to the District Attorney and say, ‘Tell you what, I’ll step down and y’all go easy on me.‘ They would laugh at you. But for some reason we’ve grown to accept that it’s okay (from our officials.) It was important to me that if we could oust him  and take him out of office first, then that would guarantee that he’d be subjected the legal system the same way the rest of us would be.”

It was out of this conviction that TAC was born.

“A separate group had formed (before), and they wanted to get a little more organized than just a Facebook group,” Gann said. “And Steve was actually an integral part of getting that group together to begin with, and he approached me about getting on board and maybe making all these random people into a cohesive unit.”

“It was an interesting experiment,” Lane said. “Because you know you have 10 people in a group, and although I think there’s some overlap with some of our personal motivations and political ideologies, there’s some disparate ideologies as well. We’re a pretty diverse group. It’s a mix of everything. We were all passionate about things, so it was really neat to watch different people settle into different roles and put aside personal differences to still accomplish a common goal.”

And now that the army had been assembled – TAC – and the goal established – ousting Arnold – the real fight could begin.

“It was an incredibly lengthy process, in some ways. In some ways it was a very fast process,” Lane commented. “When we first did this, he hadn’t been indicted or anything like that. And we’d have people contact us from within the community that were like, ‘You don’t want to do this. He’s popular, and this could ruin you.‘ Friendly people just trying to say, ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing here?’”

Gann laughed.

“I kind of look at the whole situation from beginning to end as kind of like Al Capone getting busted on tax evasion,” he said. “And that’s when I started saying, ‘Look, you’re really in violation of the letter of the law, and you are definitely unethical.”

After fiercely advocating against Arnold in the public eye, luck turned in their favor: In May 2015, the FBI investigation accused Arnold of multiple crimes. Finally, the public view had shifted in their favor.

“I think there was a point where quite a few of us had a lot of doubt that maybe (Arnold getting indicted) wasn’t going to happen,” Lane said.  

From that point on, TAC became an integral part of the push in the fight to take down Arnold, with a particular focus on their media outreach.

“We were very methodical about our media presence and getting news out. And we wanted something in the news at least every two weeks,” Gann said. “That idea of ‘the squeaky gear gets the oil?’ Well, we wanted to be the squeaky gear that everybody had to pay attention to.”

“Every couple of weeks we would bring on more information, and oddly or not, he’d help us out a lot,” Lane laughed sardonically. “Domestic violence charges and all these things; it wasn’t hard for new articles to come out about Sheriff Arnold. And it made people understand what kind of a man he was.”

In the midst of the ramping efforts to advocate for Arnold’s ousting, however, someone was also stepping up their efforts to keep TAC silenced. While working to keep the public updated on the criminal charges, TAC’s messages were hacked.

“What somebody had done was cut-and-pasted huge sections of (our message) thread and sent it to us from an anonymous Facebook account,” Lane explained. “It was obvious they were privy (to our information). They were exact duplicates. I jumped on it pretty fast … I said if it was a joke, hah hah, you’ve had your fun, but in five minutes if you don’t own up to it, I’m reporting it to the TBI and FBI because this is pretty significant.”

The threats only served to redouble their efforts, however. TAC moved to their next stage: finding the right legal representation to push the ouster suit. Due to the risk posed by ouster suits, most law firms would not take them.

“Just trying to find an attorney in town that was willing to tackle an ouster suit was a little bit of a challenge in itself,” Gann said. “It puts some of them in difficult spots, especially for criminal defense lawyers. They have to go to the jail and get access to their clients, and if the sheriff that runs the jail is the one they’re trying to oust, it could hamper them having access to their clients.”

“Especially crooked sheriffs,” Lane laughed.

Gann agreed.

“He’s shown he’s more than willing to use his office for political gain at that point … It was a risk and a challenge.”

“When you take on an action like this, whether you’re the individual, or the attorneys involved representing this suit, this is something that sort of brands you politically for life,” Lane said.

A branding, it seemed, no one was willing to take up – until, of course, they found the office of “Wilson, Howser, Oliver, and Turner” of Murfreesboro.

“A group of go getters right there,” Gann said. “They’re not afraid to go after anyone.”

“We did something. I believe it was the first time in Tennessee history: There is a part of the ouster suit that allows you to temporarily remove an elected official from office while they’re awaiting their ouster suit trial,” Lane said. “And our legal team was successfully able to do that.”

Their ouster suit, filed on September 29, 2016, worked – Arnold was temporarily removed from his office late 2016, effectively taking away his bargaining chip for a light plea deal. Finally, the elected official was starting to get the justice he deserved.

“The ouster suit worked really well tactically,” Lane said. ”… Not only did it take resigning off the table, we sort of felt like Sheriff Arnold had a finite amount of financial resources, and he was trying to fight on two fronts, civil and criminal. We just felt like he was going to have to choose at some point.”

And choose he did. Because Arnold focused his resources on fighting the criminal charges and TAC’s legal representation, the ouster suit helped lock him down for the federal charges.

The ouster suit, however, never made it to trial; it didn’t need to. Once Arnold was temporarily removed from office, he simply resigned, leaving TAC’s strategy an even easier win.

“It worked. I think it worked on multiple levels,” Lane said.

From there, it was as simple as watching the dominoes fall, ending with Arnold imprisoned in November 2017.

And for Gann and Lane, this spelled the beginnings of something great.

“I wanted something a little more substantial than going after a single sheriff,” Gann said. “I wanted it to be more idealized. I wanted a group that’s going to tackle corruption here locally, and then hopefully someday move on to a wider state basis. And whether that was us handling that directly, or working with other people and giving them advice on how they can either pursue ouster suits or file ethics complaints – that’s kind of what the purpose of our organization is. Not only getting directly involved in that stuff, but also to help and educate people in what they can do as citizens.”

Lane agreed and hopes that county officials take notes.

“I really hoped that (our) ouster suit would have some sort of chilling effect when officials found out that, ‘Wow, there’s this obscure thing that regular people could band together and sue me out of office,” he said. “Sadly, I don’t think that happened at all. But I get the feeling that us being successful has inspired other people to be more active and less willing to put up with less corruption. I think people have a lower tolerance level for any sort of shady business dealings from our elected officials. So I think that was a positive thing for sure.”

In the meantime, TAC is working on helping others with their own corruption problems and keeping the public educated.

“Typically what we do is we try to keep an eye out in the media for anything that may pop up of interest, just to keep (our audience) aware of what’s going on,” Gann said. “We get contacted by folks who saw what we were successful in doing and (ask for our help.)”

“Eighty percent of the requests we get have to do with criminal justice,” Gann said, nodding. “And what we’ll do is we’ll educate them on how they can go about the process of talking to the Board of Professional Responsibility, filing a complaint there, etc.”

TAC also has their eyes on Operation Candy Crush, the recent sting by the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office, the Murfreesboro Police, the Smyrna Police and the La Vergne Police on 23 local CBD businesses. The raid was found to be an illegal operation but only after the damage had been done to the businesses.

“These were good people,” Gann said, matching Lane’s frustration. “Good, hardworking, honest people. And they were arrested, their businesses were locked up, their livelihood was potentially taken away, at least for two weeks, and their reputation in the community was ruined.”

To prevent things like this from happening again, Gann advocates for every citizen to feel empowered to stand up against corruption.

“Whether it’s complacency or fear, we need as citizens to be more active and more involved when we see something (corrupt),” he said. “When the government says, ‘If you see something, say something,’ well we should do that. If we see something, we should be the ones to go after that.”

Lane understands that it’s hard though. Fighting for justice doesn’t always come free.

“It’s hard for most people,” he said sympathetically. “Most people are just trying to work a job, be able to pay their taxes, and be able to spend time with their families… you’re not just potentially risking yourself, you’re potentially risking your family as well. Be willing to understand that you have to take responsibility for that. Are you willing to accept that for the greater good?”

“It goes back to the principle of a government of the people, for the people, by the people,” Gann said. “And we are the people, and we need to understand what safeguards are built into our law to protect ourselves from people who seek to rule us …That’s one of the reasons I wasn’t scared of Arnold or anybody else that comes from a official position: because they aren’t our rulers. They serve us as the people. And if they’re not doing their job, then they should be scared of us.”

To contact News Editor Angele Latham, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com.

For more news, visit www.mtsusidelines.com, or follow us on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines or on Twitter at @Sidelines_News

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