NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A NewsChannel 5 hidden-camera investigation discovered Tennessee state troopers being used as chauffeurs for their boss, Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons.
That investigation now has one critic asking whether taxpayers are being taken for a ride.
But state officials are making no apologies for how they've spent your money.
"Commissioner Gibbons' time is as valuable as anyone in the Department of Safety and Homeland Security," said Col. Tracy Trott, head of the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
Picked for the job more than three years ago, Gibbons -- a former Shelby County DA -- decided to commute between his home in Memphis and his office in Nashville, sometimes using those sworn law enforcement officers as chauffeurs.
"Sometimes, if I have a lot of work to do, emails to answer and so on, then we do that," the commissioner told NewsChannel 5 Investigates a few weeks ago.
Our cameras had first caught him leaving the Tennessee Tower state office building late on a Friday afternoon in January.
Behind the wheel of the commissioner's own state-issued SUV: a state trooper, with Gibbons in the passenger seat.
But it wasn't just one trooper.
A second SUV followed with a second state trooper.
NewsChannel 5 followed them for almost two hours down I-40 -- to a convenience store at Exit 108.
After a quick restroom break, Gibbons got behind the wheel of his own vehicle, leaving the second SUV to take the commissioner's driver back to Nashville.
"I will have troopers get me to Exit 108, then I drive from there to Memphis," he acknowledged. "I don't do it that often, but when it's helpful for me to get work done, then yes I do it."
We pulled the paperwork, and email after email showed where the boss asked the THP if he could get "some transportation help."
In one case, he cited his "exhausted state."
Every time, Col. Trott and his team said "yes."
"Is the commissioner treating troopers as chauffeurs?" we asked the colonel.
"No," he answered. "We look at it as, we're maximizing his time on the clock. He's performing more duties for the Department of Safety and Homeland Security by us assisting him with transportation."
In fact, those emails show that two troopers made the run to Exit 108 at least 31 times in a two-and-a-half year period. Officials agree it may have been more.
On at least two occasions, a second two-trooper team met the commissioner to drive him the rest of the way.
That's a total of four state troopers just to get the commissioner home to Memphis.
"There would be times, very rare times, where he would want to be taken to Memphis in his car -- not very often, very rarely did that happen," Trott explained.
Still, he argued that it's actually taking troopers, most of whom are normally assigned to administrative jobs, and putting them out on the roads.
"Gives me more presence on the highway, more people to respond to an emergency call if something happened in that area," Trott said.
"But most of the time, they don't respond to emergencies, do they?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.
"They haven't had many occasions, no. It's very few."
But instead of being out on the roads enforcing highway safety, we clocked the commissioner's state troopers at more than 80 mph.
"Are the speed limits different when the commissioner is in the car?" we asked.
"No, they certainly are not," he answered.
"So that would not be proper in your mind?"
"That would not be appropriate."
Democratic Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville questioned whether the troopers are really serving the public when they're serving the commissioner.
"I don't know what makes this particular person so special that he deserves all this additional treatment," he said.
"These are not chauffeurs that, presumably, could be hired for this purpose. These are highly trained professionals who we spend a lot of money on, who have a lot of skills. We need to have them out in our neighborhoods stopping crime."
NewsChannel 5 asked Col. Trott, "Can you honestly say this is the best use of state troopers' time?"
"Well, I'm responsible for all highway patrol operations," he responded. "If I didn't think it was a good usage of our time and resources, I would tell Bill Gibbons and he would stop. I don't feel that way, Phil."
In fact, THP officials concede the troopers' trips to the 108 -- to get the commissioner halfway home -- have continued even after we began asking questions.
"It's a great usage of our resources, and I wouldn't change a thing -- and I don't plan on changing a thing," Trott concluded.
Our investigation also discovered a handful of trips where the commissioner flew to and from Memphis on THP helicopters. A spokesperson said those were business - except for three flights to help him to be able to carry on state business when his wife was in the hospital.
So how much do all these road trips cost taxpayers?
The colonel said that they've never sat down and figured it up because they simply view it as a cost of doing business.
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