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Titans Officer Admits Ticket Fixing Before Policy Change

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Jeb Johnston Jeb Johnston
Kennetha Sawyers Kennetha Sawyers

By Phil Williams
Chief Investigative Reporter

In just released tapes, a Metro police officer admits he helped some of the biggest names in town get out of their tickets for speeding and other traffic violations. Still, his admissions may not land him in trouble with his bosses.

Among those who apparently benefited have been members of the Tennessee Titans.

"If it worked that way for everybody, it would be great -- but it doesn't," said driver Delishia Porterfield. "Regular people like me have to pay a $144 ticket."

For years, speculation had centered on Officer Jeb Johnston as the ticket fixer for the Titans.

Johnston -- who provides security for the Titans -- was accused by a fellow officer back in 2003 of trying to intervene in Steve McNair's DUI arrest. Disciplinary charges against Johnston were later overturned for lack of evidence.

But, in an interview with an internal affairs investigator last year, Johnston came clean -- to a degree:

Investigator: "Have you ever sought to have citations dismissed, retired or otherwise disposed of a traffic citation for friends, family, co-workers, or members of the Titans organization?"
Johnston: "After 2006 or before 2006?"
Investigator: "Answer the question."
Johnston: "Yes."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked the head of the Metro police internal affairs unit, "Is that an admission?"

"Well, yes and no," answered Kennetha Sawyers, director of the police Office of Professional Accountability.

Despite the insistence of then-Chief Ronal Serpas back in 2006 that ticket-fixing would not be tolerated, Sawyers said it was not until Metro police instituted General Order 06-05 -- effective September 1st, 2006 -- that "intervening in citations or arrests" was specifically prohibited.

"So to the extent that he is trying to seek clarification on the time frame, after 2006, that would have been behavior that could have subjected him to discipline," she added.

And that's where Johnston drew the line.

Investigator: "Have you done so since General Order 06-05 was enacted September 1, 2006?"
Johnston: "No Titans."

"He subsequently also indicates that he has done it for no one," Sawyers noted.

But in a recent audit of Metro's traffic violation bureau, Johnston's name resurfaced in connection with tickets possibly disappearing from court files. Police say Johnston was one of three officers who may have "performed a frequent or major role in requesting retirement of traffic citations," as described in the audit report.

Among the allegations that auditors heard, said audit manager Carlos Holt, "police officers in the traffic violations bureau searching for tickets prior to being entered in the system, primarily in the mornings."

As part of their investigation auditors interviewed clerks in the Traffic Violations Bureau. According to one, there were rumors that Johnston was the "go-to person" to get a ticket pulled. Another said he "appeared to have the run of the office."

In interviews later recorded by internal affairs, clerk Teresa Johnson said that "Jeb was just, you know, kind of everybody's friend around here."

One supervisor, Tammy Sampson, admitted to asking her own favors: "I asked him one time to get me a, my jersey signed 'cause I know he works for the Titans and he did that for me. He just kind of socialized in the mornings."

Still, several clerks described seeing Johnston pulling tickets -- some that had just arrived and had not even been recorded into the court computers.

"As far as seeing him getting, getting tickets and making copies of tickets, I don't know whether he took the copies or whether he took the tickets, but I did see him pulling them," Johnson said.

A warrant officer in the ticket division, Tony Eden, was more blunt.

Investigator: "Do you know what he did with those tickets after he pulled them?"
Tony Eden: "No, I mean.... I knew what was going on. Everyone did."

The investigator never asked what "everyone" knew.

"Unfortunately," Sawyers said, "the system is not such that we can discipline anyone on the basis of suspicion. We have to have proof."

So whether it's tickets for Titans or anyone else, investigators say Johnston gets a pass on any tickets he may have fixed in the past -- a past with which the internal affairs investigator herself seemed all too familiar.

"Any of us that have done it, you know, before the [orders] came out, you took it to a judge," she said.
 
Officer Johnston's attorney says that, since the internal affairs investigation did not find any wrongdoing, his client just wants to leave it at that and move on with his life.

Internal affairs interviewed the clerks three months after they talked to Johnston, but never went back to him.

Our investigation last year found members of the Titans organization who still got out of speeding tickets, but investigators never went to them either.

Officer Johnston isn't the only officer who was investigated for such allegations.

Michelle Steidl wrote an email last year to the clerk's office, saying that a speeding ticket written by another officer was "turned in by accident" and asking what could be done.

Steidl admits she was being pressured by a sergeant to help fix the ticket for a friend.

But internal affairs concluded she was only "asking if the citation could be placed on a docket to be heard by a judge."

The sergeant in that case, Kenneth Suggs, was given a four-day suspension, Sawyers said.

UPDATE:  In an email to NewsChannel 5 on Aug. 2, Sgt. Suggs' lawyer denied that his client "pressured" Officer Steidl.

Lawyer Brock Parks wrote, "Sgt. Suggs was cleared of those allegations and received a four (4) day suspension only for his intervention in a traffic ticket written by another officer.  Sgt. Suggs was forthcoming and admitted his error from the very beginning; however, there was never any factual basis that he used his rank, or any other means for that matter, to 'pressure' Officer Steidl regarding the ticket.  Sgt. Suggs continues to be an excellent supervisor and continues to serve with distinction in the Metro Police Department."

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