Is Tennessee's top law enforcement agency fudging the truth to get around a state law designed to help veterans get back on their feet?
That's the accusation from a former employee of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation who came to NewsChannel 5 Investigates -- and hundreds of pages of TBI personnel documents support her allegations.
The law in question says that, if a veteran and a non-veteran are equally qualified for a state job, preference will be given to the person who has served his or her country.
But the whistleblower says less-qualified candidates with connections may sometimes have the edge inside the TBI -- while the agency generates questionable letters to hide the truth.
"It's really hard to transition from military to civilian life," said Melissa Smith.
And Smith knows.
After serving the Army National Guard for 12 years -- a year of that in Iraq -- she finally got a state job three years ago, working for the TBI.
There, inside the bureau, Smith said, she repeatedly complained about the state's top law enforcement agency ignoring a state law.
It says "preference will be given" to veterans for state jobs.
"To the point where I actually printed off the policies and highlighted the sections that were applicable," Smith said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Highlighted it in yellow?"
"Yellow and pink -- multiple times," she answered.
"Because they weren't listening."
Experienced Veterans Bypassed In Hiring
Smith said she watched as the agency gave a coveted special-agent job in 2016 to the stepson of a TBI assistant director -- a young man just out of college with no law enforcement experience at all.
Among the veterans passed over:
- A highly regarded state trooper who had been "strongly recommended" by T-B-I interviewers.
- A police officer who interviewers called a "great candidate."
- Even a former military intelligence officer who had "good experience with investigating."
"As a veteran, I took that as an insult because there were other veterans that were applying that were way more qualified than this young man was," Smith said.
A year later, the son of TBI's deputy director got hired as a special agent right out of college, as did another recent college graduate who had served as a TBI intern, again bypassing experienced veterans who had served their country.
The bureau's explanation?
"From the words that I remember that were told to me is that they will hire whoever they want because it's their choice. They sign the credentials, and that's why they have a legal team."
TBI Director Mark Gwyn said, "I'm going to tell you what my attorneys tell me."
That legal advice: the law that says veterans "will" be given preference was actually designed to be read as "may" be given preference.
"I don't believe there was ever any intent to force any agency head to hire anybody. I would be shocked if anybody wrote a law that was going to force an agency head to hire anybody," Gwyn said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "So you do not view that as a mandate?"
"No, I do not," he insisted.
Letters Claimed Veterans Were Less Experienced
But that same law requires that, if state agencies decide not to hire the veterans who've applied, they must write these letters justifying the decision to bypass those vets -- and that's where the TBI sometimes got creative.
For example, Melissa Smith noted that one applicant "had been a patrol officer for a very long time, spoke five different languages."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained the letters where, over and over, the TBI claimed that veterans with actual law enforcement experience were not as qualified as the young men hired straight out of college.
They claimed the veterans didn't have "the preferred qualifications of an advanced degree" or "forensic experience" or "investigative experience."
"That was the one they used the most to throw off the veterans that were patrol officers," Smith said. "So officers that are out on the streets, making arrests, showing up to domestics, that wasn't enough experience because it wasn't 'investigative.'"
We noted, "And yet you are hiring people who have..."
"No experience at all - yeah," she answered. "But the veterans letters still say that the people who were chosen have experience."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Gwyn, "How can you justify bypassing veterans who don't have the right kind of law enforcement experience when you are hiring people with zero law enforcement experience."
"It's not to justify, it's not to justify," he responded. "What I have to justify is in my heart."
The TBI director says his commitment is to the bureau -- and finding the people he feels are most worthy of carrying the TBI badge.
Truth, Bravery, Integrity?
We pressed, "So when you look at what those letters have said, do you think, well, that really doesn't look too good?"
"No, I don't," Gwyn insisted.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Smith, "When you look at these veterans bypass letters, you think what?"
"It's all a lie. Every single bit of it is a lie," she said.
All from an agency whose motto is "Truth. Bravery. Integrity."
Smith continued, "There is no truth in those letters, no integrity in those letters and really no one at TBI is brave enough to come forward and say anything."
In the end, Smith resigned -- she says, out of principle.
After she left TBI, Melissa Smith filed a complaint with the commissioner who heads Tennessee's Department of Human Resources.
Commissioner Rebecca Hunter never responded.
Gwyn said, "If we are putting something, if someone is putting something in those letters that don't reflect what should be, we'll tweak the language that's going in those letters."
But he said he sees a far greater principle at stake.
"Sometimes you've got to go on what your heart and your gut tells you in my position, that this person is going to be a good agent. And I just hope that never gets taken away from whoever is sitting in this chair.
"Because if it does, then you're really going to start getting into issues that you don't want to get into."
Veteran Hiring By State Agency (Self-Reported)
Know of something we should investigate?
Read Part 1: Children of TBI bigwigs beat out hundreds of competitors for coveted special agent positions as part of 'legacy' hiring.