Tennessee sheriff indicted for profiting from inmate labor, misusing funds

This Wednesday, June 12, 2024 booking photo provided by Metro Nashville Police Department, shows Gibson County Sheriff Paul Thomas, who has been charged with illegally profiting from the work of jail inmates in his custody. (Metro Nashville Police Department via AP)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The sheriff of a rural Tennessee county illegally profited from the work of jail inmates under his supervision and housed dozens of them in a home outside of the prison without permission, officials said Wednesday.

Gibson County Sheriff Paul Thomas was indicted in May in Gibson and Davidson counties on 22 charges including official misconduct, theft, forgery and computer crimes involving jail inmates in his custody, Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower said in a news release.

Thomas turned himself in to authorities this week, and he is out on bond, said Davidson County district attorney Stacey Edmonson. Thomas' lawyer said the sheriff deserves the presumption of innocence and he looks forward to defending himself in court.

Investigators said Thomas was an investor in three for-profit companies that provided staffing assistance to local businesses, housed current and former inmates in a transitional home, and provided transportation to work-release inmates and former inmates traveling to and from work. Thomas failed to disclose his ownership interest in the companies, known as Alliance Group, in his annual filings with the Tennessee Ethics Commission, Mumpower said.

Thomas directed more than $1.4 million in inmate wage fees and deductions to profit Alliance Group, investigators said. At least 170 inmates in Thomas’ custody were employed by Alliance's staffing agency during the investigation, investigators said.

Alliance Transportation was paid $18 per day to bring inmates to and from work, while 82 inmates were allowed, without proper approval, to live at Orchard House transitional home instead of the Gibson County jail, investigators said, noting that they were charged $40 per day by the home,

He received more than $181,000 in compensation, payroll benefits, and legal representation services from Alliance — money that was illegally derived from inmate labor, the comptroller's office said.

Investigators said Thomas also deceived the Tennessee Department of Correction by showing the county jail as the inmate location in the state’s offender management system rather than the transitional home, resulting in the county collecting more than $500,000 in reimbursements from the state.

Thomas then required the county to give that money to Orchard House without the correction department's knowledge or consent.

“Orchard House was neither attached to the jail nor staffed by jail personnel, and no contract existed between the county and Orchard House,” the comptroller's office said.

William Massey, Thomas' lawyer, said the indictment “has caused a flurry of activity in the press, but it has no evidentiary weight or value.”

“He looks forward to his day in court before 12 jurors when he can defend himself, and his defense team does too,” Massey said in an email to The Associated Press.

The AP in May released a series of stories related to U.S. prison labor.

Gibson County is located northwest of Memphis. Thomas' indictment comes more than seven years after another Gibson County sheriff, Chuck Arnold, pleaded guilty to charges including fraud, theft, forgery and official misconduct related to the taking of drugs and money from a jail medication fund.

Arnold was sentenced to probation.