Tennessee Sheriff Pleads Guilty to Corruption

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CN) – A jailed Tennessee sheriff admitted that he used his position to benefit his e-cigarettes company, tried to hide his involvement in the venture, and lied about the money he made.

Robert Arnold, the suspended sheriff for Rutherford County, Tenn., has been jailed since September on charges of fraud, bribery, extortion, obstruction of justice and conspiracy for his role in a company that sells e-cigarettes to inmates.

Arnold, his uncle John Vanderveer, and Joe Russell II, former chief administrative deputy for Rutherford County, each invested $3,000 in October 2013 to start JailCigs LLC, a company selling electronic cigarettes to be used by inmates, according to prosecutors.

Though Arnold denied receiving any profit from the company, prosecutors say he made $66,000 from JailCigs between October 2013 and April 2015.

Arnold, 40, was suspended without pay in November by a judge who found that his impending federal trial will distract from his law-enforcement duties. The trial, originally scheduled for August, was pushed back to Feb. 7 to allow the defendants time to go through discovery information from the U.S. Justice Department.

His $250,000 bond had been revoked two months earlier, after a U.S. attorney presented evidence that Arnold violated the terms of his pretrial release through allegations of domestic abuse involving his wife.

Arnold pleaded guilty Wednesday to wire fraud, honest services fraud and extortion under color of official right.

Acting Middle Tennessee U.S. Attorney Jack Smith said Arnold “admitted his guilt and participation in the brazen criminal scheme charged in the indictment brought against him by the grand jury.”

“His guilty pleas hold him accountable for his criminal conduct and we look forward to the sentencing hearing in this matter,” Smith said in a statement. “As I have said in the past, the conduct of Arnold is in no way representative of the fine and often heroic work done daily by the law enforcement officers in our district.”

According to a press release announcing the guilty pleas, Arnold admitted in a hearing last week that he used his position as sheriff to benefit JailCigs, took steps to disguise his involvement in the company, and lied about his JailCigs income when pressed by local media in April 2015.

Each of the three charges Arnold pleaded guilty to carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Prosecutors say Arnold agreed in his plea deal to pay $52,500 in restitution to Rutherford County.

He will be sentenced May 8 by Chief U.S. District Judge Kevin Sharp.

The Rutherford County Commission appointed Mike Fitzhugh as interim sheriff on Jan. 12. Fitzhugh will serve as interim sheriff for 18 months and said he plans to run for a full four-year term in the next election.

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