Last week, at his retirement party, former Nashville Police Chief Emmett Turner received a farewell present. But it wasn’t a dinner at Sunset Grill, a paid vacation to Bermuda or a lifetime pass to tee up at any Metro golf course. It was a new Grand Jeep Cherokee, valued at nearly $27,000.
Private donations paid for the SUV, but the lavish token may test the ethics policy of his new boss, Gov. Phil Bredesen. It also irritated Mayor Bill Purcell, highlighting lingering tension between the administration and the city’s former top cop. While Purcell served as the honorary chair of the “Salute to the Chief” gala last Tuesday at the Nashville Coliseum, no one told him that Turner would receive the kind of gift he could drive home.
“We were very surprised,” Deputy Mayor Bill Phillips says. “I thought it would be a nice event to show appreciation for his years of public service and that he’d get a plaque. That’s not to take away from his service to the city. It has been outstanding, but I think it’s unusual that he got something that extravagant.”
More than 50 prominent Nashvillians paid for the gift, including Ingram Industries chair Martha Ingram, former health care executive Sam Howard and Gaylord CEO Colin Reed. Defense attorney Aubrey Harwell organized the gala and solicited donations. Turner, by all accounts, had no idea he was going to receive a new Jeep and played no role in raising money for the vehicle. And there’s no indication that any of the donors had anything to gain from Turner during his tenure as chief. But at a time when many people suspect that the rich and powerful have too much influence on public officials, Turner’s $27,000 gift seems like an overwrought and antiquated gesture. And the mayor’s office is sensitive to that.
“The perception is not one that we’re comfortable with,” Phillips says. “He’s no longer an employee of the city, and if his friends want to do that they can, but if we had been asked we would have said we don’t think that’s the proper level of appreciation.”
Like many department heads under Purcell, Turner enjoyed a mixed relationship with the mayor. The two managed to avoid public disputes and, in fact, Turner’s salary jumped 25 percent during Purcell’s first three years in office. During the 1999 Hispanic abuse scandals, when Turner’s internal affairs unit failed to investigate allegations that renegade security officers were terrorizing illegal immigrants, Purcell stuck with his chief despite calls for Turner’s dismissal.
But Turner never seemed entirely comfortable with the Purcell administration’s tight management of the cop shop, including the role it was said to have played in the promotion of some of the department’s top officers. The former chief also recently signed his name to a lawsuit against Metro over its pension plan. In March, after seven years as chief and 34 on the force, Turner resigned from the department to serve as the assistant commissioner for fire prevention at the state Department of Commerce and Insurance. Now that Turner is off the Metro beat, he seems to wish the mayor’s office would let him move on with his life.
“I don’t know why Bill Phillips would have a problem with it one way or another,” Turner says of the deputy mayor’s comment on the new Jeep. “I’m not a Metro employee anymore. I don’t understand why they have an opinion on it.”
These kinds of exuberant gifts aren’t a new practice in Nashville. When former Police Chief Joe Casey retired in 1989, he received a Chrysler New Yorker. His successor, Robert Kirchner, rolled away in a Cadillac seven years later.
Harwell, who organized Turner’s farewell party, says that the steering committee considered buying the chief a vacation or establishing a fund in his name for the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. But they finally chose to give him a Jeep. “There were a myriad of things that were discussed,” Harwell says. “But ultimately people continued to talk about what had been given to Chief Kirchner and Chief Casey, and it was felt that Chief Turner should be treated in a similar fashion.”
Of greater issue to Turner than his reputation with the mayor’s office might be whether his gift violates Bredesen’s ethics policy. That policy, proudly unveiled by the governor’s office last February, prohibits individuals or businesses doing business with the state from making gifts to state workers. The new code might apply to several of the major donors, including construction executive Ray Bell, who wrote a $2,000 check toward Turner’s vehicle. Bell Construction does extensive work for the state, including road and bridge projects and construction of various public facilities. Even he admits that his business intersects with the state fire marshal’s office.
“The fire marshal regulates all of the buildings, prisons, office buildings, retail, schools, anything that we build,” Bell says.
Asked if his gift might have violated Bredesen’s new ethics policy, Bell says, “You could be right. It never crossed my mind. No one has called and asked me about it.”
Bell says that he donated money toward Turner’s gift “out of friendship,” but even if he had no ulterior motive, it’s unclear whether Bredesen’s ethics policy allows him the benefit of the doubt. Lydia Lenker, the governor’s press secretary, says that Bredesen learned of Turner’s gift the day of the party and had his legal counsel talk to organizer Aubrey Harwell about whether the gift violated the ethics code. That’s still being reviewed.
“This administration takes very seriously any suggestions that our ethical code may have been breached,” Lenker says. “We are working with Chief Turner to look at the list of contributors to see if there is any reason to be concerned.”
Meanwhile, Turner says he’s grateful for the gift but is willing to part with it. “If this is going to create a problem for the governor or a problem for me, I’ll have no second thoughts about returning the car. I don’t want to embarrass Gov. Bredesen and obviously didn’t have that intent.”
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