NASHVILLE, Tenn. - A NewsChannel 5 investigation of the hiring practices inside Tennessee's top law enforcement agency has prompted two Democratic lawmakers to introduce new legislation.
They want to make it clear that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and other state agencies must give Tennessee veterans a fighting chance at landing state jobs.
"I don't think we intended to tell them, give them a name of who to hire," said Rep. Joe Pitts, a Clarksville Democrat who represents the area near Fort Campbell.
"But I think we established a framework that said, all things being equal, a veteran will be given preference. Hopefully, we can change the law to 'shall be given preference' so there is not confusion."
Pitts and Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, said they never thought there was any doubt about a 2012 state law that said veterans "will" be given preference for state jobs.
"I think the intent and the plain language of the legislation is clear that these veterans shall be given preference," Clemmons said.
But former TBI human resources employee, Melissa Smith, told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that the Bureau ignored the law.
"From the words that I remember that were told to me is that they will hire whoever they want because it's their choice," Smith added.
She watched the children of bureau bigwigs get hired as special agents right out of college with no experience.
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 -- quote -- "good experience with investigating."
TBI Director Mark Gwyn told us he believes that the law that says veterans *will* be given preference was actually designed to be read as *may* be given preference.
Gwyn added, "I would be shocked if anybody wrote a law that was going to force an agency head to hire anybody."
Clemmons' reaction: "I am a little shocked that they felt it was optional."
Pitts noted, "When I told my kids they 'will' be home at midnight, that didn't mean maybe. That didn't mean they had an option to be late. It meant they will be home at midnight or suffer consequences."
That's why the lawmakers have now drafted a bill to make it clear that, if two candidates are equally qualified, the veteran must be given the job.
They would also give veterans the right to sue if they feel like they've been wronged.
"If we're going to live up to our word to those who have served our country, we need to make it crystal clear in the law as it was intended, that they will be given preference for these jobs," Clemmons said.
But the TBI director insisted the final call on whether to hire a veteran -- or someone with TBI connections -- still needs to be his.
"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."
"We can't just pay lip service to this," he insisted.
"I mean, we've got to be serious about it. Either we're going to hire veterans and give them a preference -- and again spouses, give them a preference on interviewing -- or let's just do away with it."