Arriola Resigns, Avoids State Criminal Charges - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NC5 Investigates: Davidson County Clerk

Arriola Resigns, Avoids State Criminal Charges

Updated: June 25, 2012 05:52 PM CDT
Davidson County Clerk John Arriola Davidson County Clerk John Arriola
Davidson County DA Torry Johnson Davidson County DA Torry Johnson

By Phil Williams
Chief Investigative Reporter

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Davidson County Clerk John Arriola submitted his resignation Monday after months of scandal surrounding his office and a lengthy criminal investigation.

Arriola's resignation -- effective the end of the day Friday -- comes as part of a deal with Davidson County prosecutors that will let him avoid state criminal charges. DA Torry Johnson said it will allow his office to avoid "protracted and costly litigation."

Still, Johnson said the Internal Revenue Service and federal prosecutors were not part the deal with the county clerk. The DA said he believes a federal investigation into Arriola's tax returns may be continuing.

""In our opinion, this is by far the most beneficial resolution of the matter for all the citizens of Nashville," Johnson told reporters during an afternoon news conference. 

Longtime Arriola campaign treasurer Leighton Bush will also be required to resign his position in the County Clerk's Office.

Arriola broke the news of his impending resignation during a 7:30 a.m. staff meeting just before his office opened for business, although insiders say that the county clerk did not give a reason for his decision to resign.

The resignation effectively ends a probe by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the state comptroller's office.

"As an elected official, Mr. Arriola had a lot of discretion on how to run the office," Johnson said in a news release. "The result of the TBI investigation and state audit found that while some of his actions and decisions may have indeed been questionable, or in violation of Metro policy, they weren't necessarily criminal in nature."

But Johnson acknowledged that -- if Arriola had not resigned -- his office had been prepared to ask a Davidson County grand jury to indict him for official misconduct for pocketing tens of thousands of dollars for wedding ceremonies that he and his staff performed on taxpayer time.

That practice was first exposed last July as part of a wide-ranging NewsChannel 5 investigation of the county clerk.
See NC5 Investigates: Davidson County Clerk

Arriola had claimed that when couples were told that his ceremonies cost $40 cash, it was a gratuity -- which is allowed by law -- not an illegal fee.

But NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained an email in which the county clerk referred to the money as a "ceremony fee." Other email messages revealed that Arriola allowed some of his Metro employees to perform weddings in his absence, but required them to leave the cash payments for him.

A state audit concluded in January that Arriola may have pocketed as much as $119,000 in illegal fees over five years.

That audit report also contradicted Arriola's argument that the money was a gratuity.

It noted that "sworn statements provided to the auditors and TBI from personnel in the county clerk's marriage department disclosed the county clerk required, with rare exception, a $40 cash fee for the performance of a marriage ceremony. These personnel indicated they would assist individuals inquiring about a free marriage ceremony by giving them the general number to the county courthouse."

Johnson said the question of whether the moneys were gratuities or fees would have made prosecution potentially difficult.

"He's resigned, and that's all behind us as far as I'm concerned," the DA added. "That's more beneficial than anything that we would have ever gotten out of two years of litigation."

As NewsChannel 5 Investigates first revealed, the audit also confirmed that Arriola had put campaign treasurer Leighton Bush on the Metro payroll without making him document the time that he actually worked.

That audit also noted that "another employee advised the auditors that he received 40 hours a week pay while working only three days a week or less since he was attending college full time." Our investigation revealed that the college student lived in a house owned by Arriola.

In addition, our NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered that Arriola had awarded numerous contracts to friends without following Metro bidding procedures.

As a result, Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling revoked Arriola's independent purchasing authority, forcing his office to go through the Finance Department for purchases.

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean called for a Metro audit of the county clerk's office after our investigation first aired. The DA later requested that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and state auditors also take a look at Arriola's office.

In February, after the release of the state and Metro audits, the Metro Council voted 25-5 to call upon Arriola to resign -- a non-binding resolution that the clerk seemed to ignore.

More recently, the Dean administration had asked the Council to take away Arriola's authority to collect some $40 million in Metro taxes, saying that the office had become increasingly dysfunctional and had become slow in depositing that money into Metro accounts.

Arriola, a former state representative, was elected Davidson County clerk in 2006. The clerk was paid $115,000 annually.

E-mail: pwilliams@newschannel5.com

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