County Clerk: 'I Call It A Gratuity' - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NewsChannel 5 Investigates:

County Clerk: 'I Call It A Gratuity'

Posted: Updated: July 5, 2011 10:51 PM
John Arriola John Arriola

By Phil Williams
Chief Investigative Reporter

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Davidson County Clerk John Arriola, while expressing outrage over a story that had not yet aired, promises to end the practices uncovered by NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

At the center of the investigation: how the county clerk pocketed thousands of dollars in extra cash while performing wedding ceremonies on taxpayer time.

Arriola released a statement Tuesday, insisting that it's all legal and claiming that he's being "bullied by accusations of impropriety where none exists."

"It's been a convenience, and it's been a real service -- I'm glad to help out," Arriola said in an interview last week about the wedding ceremonies.

But for the Davidson County clerk, it's also become big business. His clerks -- all Metro employees -- charge $40 up front for the ceremony.

However, instead of depositing the money into Metro accounts, Arriola himself pockets the cash.

Arriola: "There is what state law refers to as a gratuity. That is a part of it."
NC5 Investigates: "A gratuity is something I give voluntarily -- a tip. This is a fee that you charge."
Arriola: "No, I can have a gratuity."

But several newly married couples said they were led to believe that the fee was mandatory.

"It's $40, yes," one bride insisted.

And we listened as another couple asked one of Arriola's employees, "How much is the marriage part?"

"It's $40," the clerk said.

And another employee told our undercover reporter the same thing about Arriola's ceremonies.

"He does them on Friday mornings from 8:30 until 11. He charges $40 cash," she explained.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates told Arriola, "You have Metro employees in a Metro office on Metro time charging a fee that's going into your pocket."

"It's a gratuity, as I see it," he responded.

Earlier this year, Tennessee's attorney general weighed in on the subject, ruling that "while it is lawful ... to accept, request or solicit gratuities..., it is not lawful for such officials to charge a fee ... for performing wedding ceremonies."
Read the attorney general's opinion

NC5 Investigates: "There's an attorney general opinion that says you cannot charge a fee for performing wedding ceremonies."
Arriola: "And that's why it's a gratuity."
NC5 Investigates: "So you'd say 'this will cost you $40?'"
Arriola: "Yes."
NC5 Investigates: "Is that a gratuity, or is that a fee?"
Arriola: "It's a gratuity. I call it a gratuity."

The county clerk insisted those fees don't amount to much. "It runs about $8-10,000."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates later went back to the county clerk's marriage logs and counted up the ceremonies he performed: 842 weddings in the past year.

At $40 each, that could be more than $33,000 -- on top of his $115,000 salary.  That salary includes an $8,000 supplement from the Metro Council, finance officials say.

Arriola also insisted that he does some ceremonies without charge. NewsChannel 5 Investigates was told that there are no records about how many paid the $40, so the exact amount he has taken from those ceremonies isn't known.

Arriola: "I see it as part of my responsibility and a part of the job."
NC5 Investigates: "If it's part of your job, why charge extra for it?"
Arriola: "If there is a group, a family that wants to come in and they want to be married at this time, then the state law says you can charge that gratuity."
NC5 Investigates: "State law says you can accept a gratuity, it doesn't say you can charge a fee."
Arriola: "And that's what we need to do, we need to accept, and I'm open to accept, I'll be open to accepting that gratuity."

Tax watchdog Ben Cunningham was surprised.

"We're paying him over a hundred thousand dollars to be the clerk. Why should he feel like he is due $40 cash from everybody who gets married?" said Cunningham, who heads the group Tennessee Tax Revolt.

Last year, Arriola also used your money to hire a public relation firm to promote his office. According to an invoice, one of the programs they specifically wanted to promote was the wedding "ceremonies as a convenience to Nashville citizens."

In addition, while couples can put their marriage license fees on their credits cards, that's not the same for Arriola's ceremonies.

"The ceremony, well, they asked for cash -- that's what they said," one bride recalled.

Arriola's clerks explained he wanted his fee in cash "because the computer's not set up to do it that way."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked the county clerk why he only takes cash.

"The state law doesn't say anything about what you can take," Arriola answered.

So why does he only take cash?

"It's very quick, it's very easy for folks to come in to do that. It makes it much more simpler."

Cunningham said that "the fact that it's cash only opens up so many questions. What happened to the cash? Is he reporting it on his income tax?"

NC5 Investigates: "Does the office here give you a tax form to report those fees?"
Arriola: "No, I report that on my income tax."
NC5 Investigates: "Will you show us your income tax returns?"
Arriola: "I don't have those."

And even if he did, Arriola said that's his business, not the public's business.

Arriola's statement added that any charge quoted by his employees "does not reflect my policy."

Still, he goes on to say that he has "now changed the procedures" in his office "so that couples seeking to get married are provided with a written statement that I only accept a gratuity and that the amount is at their discretion."

"In addition," he continues, "I have decided that going forward I will give gratuities I receive for performing marriages to charity."

E-mail: pwilliams@newschannel5.com

Read John Arriola's statement on the wedding ceremonies


Related Stories:
NC5 Investigates: Davidson County Clerk

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