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NC5 Investigates: Davidson County Clerk

Emails Show Arriola Charged 'Fee' For Wedding Ceremonies

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Davidson County Clerk John Arriola Davidson County Clerk John Arriola

By Phil Williams
Chief Investigative Reporter

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Davidson County Clerk John Arriola had insisted the cash he pocketed for performing weddings was not a fee.

But, buried in thousands of emails obtained from the county clerk's office, NewsChannel 5 Investigates discovered that Arriola was telling the people he married that it was indeed a fee for his services -- and that, the state says, could be a crime. Those emails also reveal that the county clerk may have personally profited from weddings performed by his employees.

All of this comes as TBI agents and state auditors prepare to present the findings of their own criminal investigation to prosecutors.

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The emails, obtained under the state's public records law, could provide critical evidence, putting Arriola's own words at odds with his public claims. So says a veteran Nashville attorney who has both prosecuted and defended a host of public corruption cases.

"This is the type of thing that you would be expect to be displayed on a large screen in front of a jury if there were a jury trial because it's very damning," said Gary Blackburn.

Perhaps most damning are the emails relating to the $40 cash that our NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered that Arriola had pocketed for each wedding ceremony he performed on taxpayer time.

"You have Metro employees in a Metro office on Metro time charging a fee that's going into your pocket," we noted to the county clerk back in June.

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

Over and over, Arriola insisted the 40 bucks was not an illegal "fee."  An opinion from the Tennessee attorney general says clerks cannot charge a fee for performing wedding ceremonies.

"And that's why it's a gratuity," he declared.

But when one bride emailed the county clerk, wanting "to be married," Arriola responded: "I have saved the date and time. The ceremony fee is $40."

"He calls it a fee, he treats it as a fee, and he keeps it as a fee," Gary Blackburn observed. "Looks to me like it's a fee."

The emails also reveal new details, suggesting that Arriola pocketed money from weddings he had nothing to do with. "I need you to perform weddings today," he emails one employee. In another: "I am appointing you official czar of the wedding chapel."

As for the cash, Arriola instructs: "Use my office for weddings, place the fee in an envelope in the left middle drawer with the campaign check book. Use $20 to buy ur lunch."

Blackburn observed, "That money goes into his desk. That means it's his money. What else could it mean?"

In yet another, Arriola allows the person doing the weddings to "take a few dollars out for everyone's lunch."

If you have Metro employees getting this money for performing weddings then giving it to the boss, is that potentially criminal?

"It could be," Blackburn explained, "because you are misusing a public employee for a private business."

Tennessee's official misconduct law makes it a felony for a public official to use his or her office to receive any benefit not authorized by law.

Plus, the emails raise serious questions about Arriola's campaign treasurer, Leighton Bush, whom the county clerk put on the Metro payroll, paying him for 20 hours a week -- even though our investigation discovered Bush had not swiped into the office in months.

The emails show that, when Bush was there, he spent much of his time working on political tasks like fundraisers. They show him skipping administration meetings because of conflicts with his insurance business, then sometimes disappearing for long periods. "How are you?" one co-worker emails. "I have not heard from you."

They also confirm what NewsChannel 5 Investigates had been told, that Arriola's campaign treasurer was out for extended periods with a serious illness -- although there's no evidence that he was required to follow the same sick leave policies as other Metro employees.

Such words, Blackburn said, could come back to haunt the county clerk.

"In my experience, juries punish those who don't tell the truth. These would be used to question his credibility and try to demonstrate he wasn't truthful."

E-mail: pwilliams@newschannel5.com


Related Stories:
NC5 Investigates: Davidson County Clerk

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