Tennessee sheriff pleads not guilty to using prison labor for personal profit

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A sitting Tennessee sheriff pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges that he 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.

Gibson County Sheriff Paul Thomas entered the plea to 18 charges during a circuit court hearing in Trenton, his lawyer, William Massey, said in a text message. Gibson's next court hearing in the county where he remains sheriff is set for Oct. 22, Massey said.

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.

Thomas will have an arraignment hearing on the four Davidson County charges in Nashville on a later date. Massey has said that Thomas 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, Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower said June 13.

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, officials said

“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.

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

Rural Gibson County is 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 removal of drugs and money from a jail medication fund.

Arnold was sentenced to probation.