Secretly recorded audio of a speech made by Macon County Sheriff Mark Gammons raises questions if he was sending a message to his employees that if they didn't support his campaign, that they could lose their job.
The audio, obtained by the Channel 4 I-Team, was recorded in a staff meeting on March 21, in which the sheriff speaks at length about his frustration over his employees speaking with his opponent.
"From this point forward, you can't support me, I'm giving you a free out this morning," Gammons can be heard saying. "If you're with me, stand up and say you support Mark Gammons. If you're not, go ahead and go, just go, make it easy on yourself."
"It does raise questions, if you're intimidating your employees," chief investigative reporter Jeremy Finley asked Gammons.
"I've never intimidated, I've bent over backwards to help an employee. But at some point in time you've got to be a boss. You have to let people know the rules," Gammons said.
The rules, the sheriff told the Channel 4 I-Team, is that his employees can't campaign for his opponent during work time. Gammons said he suspects some of his employees were doing that.
In some instances in the recordings, he conveys that message with questionable statements.
"If you can't support me, that's fine. It's hard to support you and sign your check," Gammons said in the recording. "You try to take food out of my mouth, why should I not worry about taking food out of your mouth."
"Somebody could take that as you saying, ‘If you're not going to vote for me, then you can leave,'" Finley said.
"No, what I meant by that is, I wipe the slate clean, let's move forward. Let's be good. But the point I had, if you leave this meeting and you don't feel like you want to be here, or I've done something wrong to you, then yeah, I would be glad to give you whatever you need if you don't want to work here. But it wasn't to threaten them and saying, go do this for me or I'm going to fire you. That was no intention," Gammons said.
The Channel 4 I-Team shared the entire recording with Vanderbilt professor Bruce Barry, who wrote a book on ethics and political speech in the work place.
"That does sound like, at least a veiled threat, that if you engage in off-work political activity that doesn't fit with his own campaign, that there could be consequences for you. That's clearly inappropriate," Barry said.
In several parts of the speech, the sheriff said he's not going to fire employees for not voting for him.
"Not going to fire you for doing that. Promise," Gammons said, and then in one instance, followed it up with saying, "But that mouth, will get you jobless."
"He doesn't make specific threats, if you don't do this, you're going to lose your job. But there does seem to be some kind of veiled threat there," Barry said.
"Can you understand why some employees would hear what you had to say, and felt like, that they couldn't vote for who they wanted to," Finley asked.
"If they feel intimidated, I apologize. But that was not my intention do to," Gammons said.
The sheriff gave the Channel 4 I-Team access to his entire staff – without him watching – to ask if they felt intimidated after that meeting.
Detective Ron Smith agreed to talk to us on camera.
"I don't feel like it was an election intimidation meeting. No, I don't," Smith said.
"I can imagine people will see this and say, ‘Hey look, he's your boss, we're here at his office. Of course you're going to say this, of course you're going to be in support of him.' Is there any truth to that?" Finley said.
"No sir. I'm not originally from here. If I thought there was a snake in the grass, I would be one of the first whistleblowers," Smith said.
The sheriff said the only reason you're hearing all this is because of dirty politics, leaked to hurt his campaign.
A campaign, he said in the recordings, he intends to win.
"From this point forward, if you can't ride this ship, get off," Gammons said. "Cause my election hasn't begun."
There is a Tennessee state code that reads it is unlawful to fire employee based on how they vote or to coerce an employee to vote a certain way. But again, Gammons said he wasn't telling his employees who to vote for, only not to campaign for his opponent during work time.
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