By: Mark Fitzgerald
How theTennessee Press Association fostered the
creation of the state’s Bureau of Investigation sp.
WHEN TENNESSEE BUREAU of Investigation (TBI) director Larry Wallace spoke at the Tennessee Press Association’s (TPA) recent winter convention, he was talking to the group that was most responsible for the agency’s very existence.
More than four decades ago, the TPA formed a committee that successfully pushed for a law enforcement agency, modeled on the FBI, that would be a sophisticated criminal investigative service capable of assisting the untrained and mostly inept sheriff/politicians of the era.
And since the TBI’s creation in 1952, the TPA has fought to make the agency more independent from political control.
Indeed, in 1980, the TBI was radically reformed and made into an independent department headed by a director whose six-year term never coincides with the term of the governor.
That reform was largely the result of investigative reporting on political corruption in the 1970s ? reporting that led to a jail term for a governor ? and the quiet lobbying of the TPA.
“The [TBI] is one of the major achievements of the [TPA],” Greenville (Tenn.) Sun editor John M. Jones Jr. said, when introducing TBI director Wallace to the winter convention. “The Tennessee Press Association, in one sense of the word, is the sponsor of the TBI.”
Editor Jones was reading the words of his father, Greenville Sun publisher and president John M. Jones Sr. ? whom many in the Volunteer State regard as the real father of the TBI.
In a telephone interview, the elder Jones recalled the bloody incident that led him to suggest the creation of an agency that ultimately became the TBI.
The impetus came from an especially heinous murder that took place on a cold, rainy night in the early winter of 1950 at an isolated cabin in rural Greene County. Someone fired a shotgun through the window of the cabin ? killing a man asleep in his bed beside his wife and the couple’s two small children, who had crawled into the bed for warmth.
As soon as he heard about the shooting, John M. Jones Sr. rushed to the cabin with a photographer.
“By the time we got there, [the cabin] was a mess. The sheriff and deputies had gone clomping all over the place. The sheriff, of course, was not trained at all in law enforcement,” Jones recalled.
As it turned out, the sloppy police work had destroyed the best evidence the sheriff’s department could have hoped for ? the footprints of the murderer.
Most frustrating of all, the sheriff, Jones and just about everybody else in the county knew who had killed the man: a thief who had recently been convicted of stealing barbed wire because of the testimony of the man now murdered.
“I can’t recall now if he ever even spent any time in jail on stealing the barbed wire,” Jones said. “But he was never even indicted for the murder.
“That was totally frustrating to me,” he added. “That’s what made it clear to me that we needed some help for these rural sheriffs.”
Jones brought his concerns to the TPA, suggesting the association form a committee to press for a professional ? and nonpolitical ? state law enforcement body.
He was appointed chairman of the committee ? and the next day he met with then-Gov. Gordon Browning.
Browning gave the TPA group his full support ? but he also had a trick up his sleeve. His appointee to head the new TBI was a political hack.
“We were more or less naive,” Jones said. “It was a great disappointment.”
Fortunately, another governor, Frank Clement, was soon elected ? and he shared the TPA’s conviction that the TBI director must be a law enforcement professional.
At the suggestion of Jones and the TPA, Gov. Clement ? an ex-FBI agent himself ? asked FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to suggest a new TBI head. Hoover personally arranged to have the FBI’s Nashville chief agent, Bud Hopton, take early retirement to head the TBI.
“This was the day things began to really change for the better,” Jones wrote in an article in the Tennessee Press magazine, recalling the origins of the TBI.
Even with Hopton’s good intentions and professional demeanor, much needed to be done to enhance the TBI’s independence.
The biggest problem, for example, was the fact that the TBI was an agency administered by the Department of Safety ? in effect, by the Tennessee Highway Patrol, a political fiefdom.
Through its control of the TBI budget, the Highway Patrol could punish the TBI when the agency began to investigate political scandals.
In 1980 ? after Tennessee was rocked by the pardon-selling scandal of Gov. Jim Blanton’s administration ? the legislature and the governor’s office undertook a far-reaching study of the TBI.
As a result of that study ? and what Jones calls some behind-the-scenes lobbying by the TPA ? the TBI was made a separate department with its own budget.
“Today,” Jones wrote in the Tennessee Press, “Tennessee has a well-equipped, well-staffed, highly motivated, nationally recognized organization that is dedicated to the protection of the citizens of the state by aiding in the law enforcement process in a rather remarkable way. It is enormously important to the security and well-being of Tennessee.”
However, Jones warns, the TPA must keep a continual watch over its creation: “Equally important is maintaining the integrity of this organization and keeping the selection of its director, other personnel and operations from political considerations insofar as it is possible.”
?( Greenville (Tenn.) Sun publisher and president John M. Jones Sr.-whom many in the Volunteer State regard as the real father of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation) [Photo & Caption]