Legacy or Nepotism? Whistleblower Questions TBI Hiring Practices
Ex-employee says big factor is: Who's your Daddy?
Nov 20, 2017
When it comes to the big cases -- like the kidnapping and murder of Holly Bobo, shootings involving local police or cases involving public corruption -- responsibility often falls to special agents of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
For TBI agents, the badge is a badge of honor.
"Nepotism is in the policy, and it's not allowed," said former TBI employee Melissa Smith.
Smith, who worked in the TBI human resources department for two years, told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that she watched children of TBI bigwigs get hired as special agents -- over military veterans with far greater law enforcement experience.
That occurred despite a state law that says veterans will be given preference in hiring.
"When we were trying to write the veterans letters to justify why veterans weren't hired over everyone else that was hired, the word 'legacy' came up," Smith recalled.
"That they're family members, it's part of their legacy to be a TBI agent."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates interjected, "Which sounds like a fancy word for...."
"For nepotism," she said.
Deputy Director's Son Hired As Special Agent
Last year, according to TBI statistics, more than a thousand people applied for just 14 TBI special agent jobs.
One of the 14 lucky hires, Hunter Locke did not even graduate until December from Cumberland University.
Locke's resume shows a degree in health and human performance, with a minor in sports management.
His primary work experience? He was a pizza delivery person.
Still, a TBI interview panel voted to "strongly recommend" him to become a special agent.
Hunter's dad, it turns out, is TBI Deputy Director Jason Locke, the number two man at the bureau.
A video posted to YouTube shows Jason Locke speaking to a group at Boys State earlier this year, where he had some advice on how other young men might fulfill their dreams of becoming TBI agents.
"There's a lot of competition, so you have to do things to set yourself apart," he insisted.
"We always encourage people, especially if they are right out of college, maybe to try to get out some experience at a local law enforcement arena, at a local police department or sheriff's department."
But when it came to Locke's own son, experience wasn't a consideration, according to Melissa Smith.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "He wasn't a criminal justice major?"
"Nope," she said.
"He had never worked in law enforcement a day in his life?"
"Huh-uh," Smith said, shaking her head.
We asked, "If this had been any other young man straight out of college..."
"He wouldn't have even made it through," she insisted. "There's no way he would have gotten a first round interview."
Notes from the TBI interviewers reflect Hunter Locke's "limited law enforcement experience," but then there's that word: "Legacy."
We showed the notes to Smith, who began laughing.
"What jumps out there?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.
Smith answered, "The fact that they actually wrote the word 'legacy.'"
"What does that tell you?"
Nepotism? TBI Director Says 'Absolutely Not'
Mark Gwyn is the director of the TBI.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Are there situations where you might reject someone who's more qualified to give the job to someone's son or daughter?"
"It's what you call qualify," Gwyn responded. "What you may think is qualifed may be totally than what I think is qualified."
What about experience?
"What you may think is experience may be totally different from what I think experience is."
Gwyn said that he got his first police job because the police chief knew his dad, who was a reserve officer.
And he said he hired his deputy director's son because he know the values the young man learned inside their home.
"He watched his father go out and work cases," the TBI director said. "He understood what the values at TBI and what that badge meant, that TBI badge meant."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "If he had not been the deputy director's son, would he have been hired?"
"I can't answer that," Gwyn said.
The TBI director added, "I can tell you this: if he had conducted himself in the interview the way he did, I'm quite sure that he would have stood a very good chance of being hired."
A TBI spokesperson later acknowledged the Gwyn was not a part of the interview process. The final interviews were conducted by a group of TBI supervisors who report up to the deputy director.
Law enforcement consultant Lou Reiter said that "'legacy' could be one of many criteria in the selection process."
Reiter retired as a deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.
He said that, while it's good to have people who understand the values of an organization, it should not be the only factor.
"If they're selected over more qualified persons, then you have to say, well, the legacy has more weight than it probably should be," Reiter added.
Assistant Director's Son Hired As Special Agent
In fact, a year earlier, Luke Webb, the 22-year-old stepson of TBI Assistant Director T.J. Jordan, beat out more than 1,100 other applicants to become a special agent.
Interview notes show Webb failed to get a "strongly recommend" from interviewers, getting a lesser "recommend" designation.
Among the observations made by TBI interviewers: "very limited experience," "22, no prior exp.," and "lacked experience to relate to."
Melissa Smith said, "There aren't many in the interview process that get a 'recommend' that make it through to the second round because there are so many applicants and there are so few spots."
Luke Webb, she said, "apparently he had something special about him."
"What was that something special in your mind?" we asked.
Her answer: "Legacy."
What about Tennessee's nepotism law?
That law says "no state employees who are related shall be placed within the same direct line of supervision."
8-31-103. Direct supervision of relatives prohibited.
Within each governmental entity, no state employees who are relatives shall be placed within the same direct line of supervision whereby one (1) relative is responsible for supervising the job performance or work activities of another relative; provided, that to the extent possible, the provisions of this chapter shall not be construed to prohibit two (2) or more such relatives from working within the same state governmental entity.
In the case of Hunter Locke, he reports to a special agent in charge, who reports to an assistant director, who reports to Jason Locke.
And, according to TBI policy, Hunter's dad has the authority to act as the TBI's top dog when the director is away. (In fact, Locke was TBI's acting director for 10 days in 2016, after Gwyn's term expired and he waited for Gov. Bill Haslam to reappoint him.)
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Gwyn, "How does that not create a potential conflict of interest?"
"Because," he answered, "you've got to know TBI."
Gwyn said that TBI attorneys tell him that, because Jason Locke does not directly supervise his son, it's not illegal.
The TBI director said he did not ask for an independent legal opinion from Tennessee's attorney general or anyone else outside the agency.
Still, Reiter said there's a potential conflict of interest.
"If Daddy being top dog in the organization then protects him and gives him favoritism on assignments and circumvents the normal processes, yeah, then that would be a potential liability."
Gwyn insisted that's not going to be a problem.
"If someone calls you tomorrow and says Hunter Locke or anyone else is getting preferential treatment ... I'm willing to do something about that," the TBI director said.
"But to turn my back on that young man who wants to live that dream of following in his father's footsteps -- or anyone else out here that wants to follow in their parents' footsteps -- I'm not going to do that."
Know of something we should investigate?
Read Part 2: The TBI made questionable claims when it justified its decision not to hire veterans who had served their country.