Tennessee sheriff pleads not guilty to using prisoner labor for personal gain
Tennessee sheriff pleads not guilty to using prisoner labor for personal gain

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A serving Tennessee state sheriff pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges that he illegally profited from the labor of prison inmates under his supervision and housed dozens of them in a home outside the prison without permission.

Gibson County Sheriff Paul Thomas pleaded guilty to 18 charges during a hearing in Trenton District Court, his attorney, William Massey, said in a text message. Gibson’s next court hearing in the county, where he remains sheriff, is scheduled for Oct. 22, Massey said.

Thomas was charged in May in Gibson and Davidson counties on 22 charges, including abuse of office, theft, forgery and computer crimes against prison inmates in his custody.

Thomas will have an arraignment on the four Davidson County charges at a later date in Nashville. Massey said Thomas deserves the presumption of innocence and he looks forward to defending himself in court.

According to investigators, Thomas was an investor in three for-profit companies that provided staff to local businesses, housed current and former inmates in a halfway house, and provided transportation for prisoners on parole and former inmates to and from work.

Thomas failed to disclose his ownership interests in the companies known as Alliance Group in his annual filings with the Tennessee State Ethics Commission, Tennessee State Auditor Jason Mumpower said on June 13.

Thomas funneled more than $1.4 million in inmate wage and salary payments to Alliance Group, investigators said. At least 170 inmates in Thomas’s care were employed by Alliance’s staffing agency during the investigation, investigators said.

Alliance Transportation was paid $18 a day to transport inmates to and from work, while 82 inmates were allowed to be housed at the Orchard House halfway house instead of the Gibson County Jail without proper authorization, investigators said, noting that the home charged them $40 a day.

He received more than $181,000 in compensation, wage subsidies and legal representation from Alliance – money that came illegally from the forced labor of prisoners, the Audit Office said.

Investigators said Thomas also deceived the Tennessee Department of Corrections by listing inmates’ location as the county jail rather than the halfway house in the state’s offender management system, allowing the county to collect more than $500,000 in reimbursements from the state.

Thomas then asked the county to transfer that money to Orchard House without the Department of Corrections’ knowledge or consent, officials said.

“Orchard House was neither affiliated with the prison nor staffed by prison personnel, and no contract existed between the county and Orchard House,” the auditor’s office said.

The Associated Press published a series of articles in May in connection with the USA Prison labor.

Rural Gibson County is located northwest of Memphis. Thomas’ indictment came more than seven years after another Gibson County sheriff, Chuck Arnold, pleaded guilty to charges including fraud, theft, forgery and abuse of office in connection with the removal of drugs and money from a prison drug fund.

Arnold was sentenced to probation.

By Liam