NC5 Investigates: TBI complaints, investigations shrouded in secrecy

NC5 Investigates: TBI complaints, investigations shrouded in secrecy
Posted at 7:26 PM, Nov 08, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-08 23:16:15-05

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation insists it has no problem investigating itself.

In the past, its internal investigations have been shrouded in secrecy.

Now, following questions raised by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, the new TBI director is promising more transparency.

"We have to prove that we are worthy of the public's trust -- and to do that, we have to make some changes," TBI Director David Rausch told reporters Thursday.

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TBI agents accused of illegal search

It comes amid questions raised by our NewsChannel 5 investigation of a controversial search in Lake County in 2015.

When two TBI agents came to Fred Wortman's door, asking for permission to search his Lake County home, they were insistent that he say "yes."

Wortman's adult son had been implicated in a murder-for-hire plot, and the agents wanted to seize valuables from inside the parents' house that the son had promised to try to get to a fellow inmate.

One agent turned up the pressure.

"He said, 'We came as honorable men, thinking that you would be an honorable man,'" Wortman recalled.

"I said, 'I try to be as honorable as I can possibly be, but you are not going to search my house without a search warrant.'"

After demanding that the agents get off his property, Wortman came back inside and attempted to close the door.

That's when Agents Mark Reynolds and Jeff Jackson rammed the door and forced their way inside, telling Wortman that asking them to leave wasn't an option.

In an interview with NewsChannel 5 Investigates, the TBI director defended the agents' actions.

"At that point, they did what the law allows -- and that is to hold the scene until a search warrant can be obtained," Rausch said.

The agents claimed that, because they had told Wortman what they were looking for, they feared he might try to destroy the evidence.

"The problem with that line of reasoning is that allows the police to have their cake and eat it too," said Vanderbilt law professor Christopher Slobogin.

Slobogin, who is an expert in Fourth Amendment law, said that if police ask for consent to go into someone's home, they must be prepared to accept "no" as an answer.

"If we say that's a situation where the police can do a warrantless search, we've totally undermined the right to refuse consent," Slobogin said.

"All the police have to do is ask consent. If they get a refusal, then they can describe what they are looking for, then say 'Oh, we've got an emergency. We've got to go in because evidence will be destroyed.'"

In a video posted on the TBI's social media sites, Rausch suggested that, instead of filing a lawsuit, the Wortmans should have asked the Bureau to investigate itself.

"You're talking about policy and procedure. And policy and procedure, the agency itself is the best expert," he added.

But, after digging into these issues for several months, our exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered that how well the TBI actually investigates itself is a closely guarded secret.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked the TBI for a log of all internal affairs investigations, but the bureau told us those were confidential.

So we asked for all complaints alleging misconduct by agents.

But the TBI said those go into the investigative files, making them confidential.

Then, NewsChannel 5 requested reprimands and other disciplinary actions in the agents' files.

Again, we were told those were also confidential.

"If that whole process is shrouded in secrecy, there's no accountability," said Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

Her organization lobbies lawmakers for more transparency in government.

"The public should know the results of investigations into police officers and if there are disciplinary actions against police officers -- and they do with local law enforcement," Fisher said.

"TBI is claiming that they have an exemption from that."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Rausch, "If there are bad agents, why should the public not be able to find that out?"

"I don't disagree with you," he answered. "Just as when I was a police chief, when you have a bad employees, the public should know."

Rausch said he'd like to find a way to be more transparent, but the bureau has to follow state law.

"I can tell you that right now, I have to follow the laws that are in place, right. Those laws exist right now. I didn't create those laws."

After our interview with the director, the TBI reversed its position on those disciplinary actions.

And Rausch announced that, going forward, complaints and internal reviews will not be put into the TBI's investigative files -- which means they could be released to the public.

Still, he said any complaints and investigations from the past will remain hidden from public view.

"The law doesn't say that it exempts internal investigations into officers. It just says investigations," Fisher said.

"But you would think through the context that what they are talking about are criminal investigations conducted by the TBI, not internal investigations of potential officer misconduct."

As for what happened to the Wortmans, the TBI director says it's important to remember the agents' motives.

"The ultimate thing I think that has been lost on this is that there was a victim that they were standing up for, that nobody else was," Rausch said.

Slobogin disagreed.

"If the concern were just for the victim, then we wouldn't have a warrant requirement, we wouldn't have a consent requirement. Police could just go into any house and, say, we're trying to vindicate the victim," the law professor said.

"I don't think anyone in this country wants the police to have that kind of authority."

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