TBI Director Defends Use Of Agency's $10M Airplane

Mark Gwyn Asks, 'What Is My Time Worth?'

 

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Last year, state lawmakers gave the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation millions of dollars to buy an airplane specifically "for search and rescue, criminal surveillance and public safety."

But an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered that the $10 million aircraft has also been used for the convenience of TBI Director Mark Gwyn, costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars.

"I never even thought one minute about this plane being a plane for Mark Gwyn," the TBI director told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

That aircraft, a Pilatus 12-NG Spectre, has been one of the TBI's most closely guarded secrets.

It's a single-engine turboprop that's registered under a fictitious name.

For weeks, the TBI stonewalled NewsChannel 5's requests for information, telling us at one point they were under no legal obligation to answer our questions, including questions about the director's use of the plane.

Finally, Gwyn agreed to sit down for an interview, and the Bureau eventually invited NewsChannel 5 to see the plane for ourselves.

The Pilatus is equipped with room for six passengers and high-tech cameras capable of conducting surveillance from high altitudes. (Beginning in early 2016, TBI leased it for 19 months at a cost of $2.4 million, shelling out an additional $7.9 million to purchase it last year.)

It also carries the director's personal touch.

WATCH: Mark Gwyn discusses plane's tail number

The tail number, N-563MG, reflects Gwyn's date of birth (May 1963) and his initials.

"Let me tell you, I didn't ask for that tail number," Gwyn insisted. "The pilots picked the tail number."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "But you are the boss, you could have said 'no, I don't think that's appropriate.'"

"I could have if I thought somebody would think something bad about it," Gwyn responded. "Had I thought that, had I thought, wait a minute, somebody is going to say that's bad, Mark - that shouldn't be on there - absolutely! It was one of those five-minute conversations that I never thought about."

Gwyn told us the main reason that the Pilatus was purchased was to provide back up for agents in potentially dangerous situations.

When an undercover agent was shot and killed in Jackson in 2016 during a drug buy, Gwyn said, the Pilatus crew was watching and able to lead a backup team straight to the shooter to take him into custody.

"I think that person would have had a great opportunity of ambushing that surveillance team as they come based on where he went after that," he added.

We asked, "So in that case, it made a real difference?"

"Absolutely," he answered. "I think it saved life."

The Pilatus is piloted by two TBI special agents who, the bureau says, are on constant standby for Amber Alerts, kidnappings and other emergencies.

A TBI attorney also said that, when they aren't flying, they're assigned to work with a unit that specializes in computer-related crimes.

Yet, when NewsChannel 5 Investigates purchased flight records for the plane, we spotted destinations across the country that are served by commercial airlines.

SOURCE: FlightAware data

Among the destinations: Charleston, Columbus, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Pensacola, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Savannah/Hilton Head Island, Tampa and Washington D.C.

Many of those flights, the TBI said, were for criminal investigations, which they can't discuss.

But, in more than a dozen other cases, Mark Gwyn used the plane that carries his initials to make it easier for him to avoid the hassle of waiting for a commercial flight. 

And, every time he did that, you paid for it.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Gwyn, "Why can't you fly commercial to save taxpayers money?"

"And I do fly commercial," he responded. "I fly commercial a lot."

Last September, Gwyn took the Pilatus to Washington for a syndicated TV show hosted by conservative commentator Armstrong Williams.

Gwyn said he was invited to participate as a representative of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

"There was the topic of policing in America dealing with officer-involved shootings," he added. "They knew that TBI worked most of the officer-involved shootings in this state, and they wanted a perspective from an African-American law enforcement leader."

WATCH: Mark Gwyn interview begins at 44:26

But we checked the video.

It shows that, when Gwyn got there, he was asked just one question about the Antioch, Tennessee, church shooting -- a case that the TBI wasn't even investigating.

There were no questions about police shootings.

The cost to taxpayers of that 4.5-hour round trip to Washington, based on the manufacturer's estimate of $616.05 an hour, was more than $2,600.

We found round-trip commercial flights for less than $300.

"It was simply, I was trying to be as efficient as I could with my time," Gwyn explained.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Did you look at what would be the most efficient for the taxpayers?"

"You know, I guess when you have to look at that, what do you think about is efficient for my time. What is my time worth?" he answered.

On half a dozen flights, Tennessee taxpayers paid for Gwyn to fly to Atlanta to pick up the head of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to give him a lift to meetings in Washington -- or to bring the two directors back home.

"I was needing to meet with him," the TBI director said. "I just thought it would be a great way that I wouldn't have to take a separate trip down there to meet with him, and then we'd go up to the meeting."

For just one of those trips, in April 2016, the flight itself cost almost $3,600.

The flight crew spent the night, running another $800.

Gwyn's explanation: "They felt that was cheaper than flying back, flying back. That's the only reasoning I can give you."

WATCH: Mark Gwyn on flying commercial

That June, you also paid for the two directors to fly to D.C. and back.

The cost of the flight was almost $3,700.

The two special agents spent two nights -- another $1,600 -- waiting for Gwyn.

They also racked up more than $2,200 in overtime.

Total cost to taxpayers: almost $7,600.

Again, Gwyn explained that "all I was really trying to do is maximize my time efficiently."

'That's their job'

We asked, "Is that the best use of TBI special agents, sitting around for two days waiting on you?"

"Well, these agents -- that's their first responsibility is the aviation unit," the director said. "It's not like they would be back here working cases or anything like that. That's their job."

In an email, TBI staff attorney Scott Wilder described the flight crew's duties as follows:

"They are assigned Active Special Agents to the Middle Tennessee region that happen to have pilots licenses. They are used for other duties when not assigned to flight operations. Since most flights are scheduled, their schedules are set to accommodate flights but they do live on 24/7 call out for Amber Alerts, silver alerts, abductions, etc. etc. Most Agents so assigned are with the Technical Services Unit which, in addition to flight ops, handles computer-related crimes, human trafficking, cyber crimes, and other digital/computer matters that often have them working or posing in an undercover capacity both on line and in real life."

Our investigation discovered that other members of the TBI also used the bureau's plane, when they could have taken commercial flights.

In fact, before the TBI got the Pilatus, it had a policy that required bureau employees to consider the cost of commercial flights when requesting to use state aircraft.

Last year, that requirement was deleted.

Know of something we should investigate?
Email: investigate@newschannel5.com

Related stories:
Legacy or Nepotism: Whistleblower Questions TBI Hiring Practices
Is TBI Fudging Truth On Veterans Law?
TBI Hiring Practices Spark New Legislation
Lawmakers Question TBI Director About Hiring
Veterans Preference Bill Passes Tennessee House