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Local-news
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State, federal wiretaps average $75,000-$95,000 per case

By MATTHEW LANE

More than 3,200 wiretaps were authorized by state and federal courts in 2019, with each one costing on average $75,000 to $95,000 respectively.

During that time, drug offenses, conspiracy and homicide were the top crimes investigated, with law enforcement officials reporting nearly 2,700 people convicted through information gathered via these wiretaps.

This information is just a sampling of the data found in the latest wiretap report from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Per federal law, the AO must submit an annual report to Congress about intercepted wire, oral or electronic communications.

The report includes a slew of data about wiretaps authorized by state and federal courts, including the number from each jurisdiction, the types of crimes being investigated, the cost to conduct the surveillance, the number of intercepts and duration, as well as the number of arrests and convictions.

JURISDICTIONS AND WIRETAPS

According to the 2019 report, 48 jurisdictions have laws that authorize courts to allow for wiretapping. Of that number, 29 jurisdictions reported using wire, oral or electronic surveillance in 2019.

On a more specific note regarding wiretaps and the number issued:

• All jurisdictions: 3,225

• Federal government: 1,417

• State governments: 1,808

• Tennessee: 19

• Virginia: 17

According to the report, the number of federal and state wiretaps increased 10% from 2018 to 2019. More specifically, federal authorizations decreased by 3% year to year, while state authorizations increased by 22%.

COMMON CRIMES INVESTIGATED

The most common type of crime investigated using wiretaps in 2019 was drug offenses — some 39% of all applications for intercepts (1,266 wiretaps) cited narcotics as the most serious offense under investigation.

If other crimes related to the drug offenses are included, then the number of wiretaps involving drugs jumps to 76%.

Rounding out the top three cited offenses are conspiracy at No. 2, accounting for 13% of wiretap applications. Homicide and assault come in at No. 3 with 4% of the applications.

According to the 2019 report, all of the wiretaps issued in Tennessee and Virginia by state courts involved drugs or conspiracy. Similar statistics hold true at the federal court level in both states.

EXPENSES AND ARRESTS

Local and federal district attorneys say manning a wiretap operation is costly and labor-intensive. Law enforcement not only has to listen in on the phone conversations around the clock, but officers have to be in the field ready to act on a moment’s notice.

All that overtime adds up. According to the 2019 report, the average cost of a wiretap was $75,160, which is up 13% from the previous year. The most expensive state wiretap was in Georgia — a 178-day investigation that resulted in 17 arrests and one conviction totaled $1.9 million.

At the federal level, the average cost of a wiretap was $94,872, which was a 40% increase from the previous year. According to the report, the most expensive federal wiretap was in Maryland — a 120-day narcotics investigation that resulted in five arrests and no convictions totaled just over $2.5 million.

Finally, when it comes to arrests and convictions, the report shows 10,584 people were arrested through the use of wiretaps — a figure up 41% from the previous year. Convictions came in at 2,699, also up from the previous year by 141%.

Federal wiretaps were responsible for 17% of the arrests and 9% of the convictions. The Western District of Tennessee reported the most arrests at the federal level, with wiretaps resulting in the arrest of 154 individuals, the report states.

State wiretaps accounted for 83% of the arrests and 91% of the convictions in 2019. Queens County, New York, reported the largest number of arrests (1,607) and the highest number of convictions (1,019) arising from a state wiretap in 2019.


News
Watch now: Mount Carmel approves balanced budget with no surplus after $89K added to spending

MOUNT CARMEL — Several new expenditures were added to Mount Carmel’s proposed 2021-22 fiscal year budget last week, resulting in what started as an $89,000 surplus being whittled down to zero.

During Thursday’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting, new contributions were approved for Mount Carmel Elementary School, the Senior Center, and a proposed new Fall Festival.

The BMA then agreed to give City Manager Mike Housewright a $10,000 raise that had been promised three years ago when he took over the city recorder’s duties.

That left the proposed 2021-22 budget surplus at $45,850.

Alderman Steven McLain then recommended that the remaining funds be allocated toward paving, which was approved by the board.

The new proposed 2021-22 budget, which remains balanced with no surplus funds, was then approved on first reading by a vote of 4-2 with McLain and Alderman Jim Gilliam voting no.

Gilliam argued against some of the spending additions, and there were multiple heated exchanges, as has become typical of a Mount Carmel BMA meeting.

A recording of the budget discussion can be heard in the online version of this article at www.timesnews.net.

school contribution

Alderman John Gibson made a motion to contribute $5,311 to a Mount Carmel Elementary School fundraiser to purchase an $8,000 automated student drop-off and pickup system to alleviate traffic congestion on Cherry Street. Gibson told the BMA Thursday that Principal Amy Glass told him the school had raised $895 through private donations and another $1,796 through a snack day fundraiser, for a total of $2,689.

Gibson’s motion was approved by voice vote without any nays.

Senior Center contribution increase

The Mount Carmel Senior Center was originally budgeted for a $12,000 contribution in 2021-22, which was the amount that the town contributed this current fiscal year.

Alderman Darby Patrick made a motion to increase that annual contribution from $12,000 to $20,000.

Mount Carmel alderman argued against much of the new spending that was added to Mount Carmel's proposed 2021-22 budget Thursday. 

“We can at least match the county,” Patrick said. “It’s bad when the county is paying more than we are.”

“The county’s got more money than we got too,” Gilliam responded.

Patrick’s motion failed 3-3 with Patrick, Gibson and Mindy Fleishour in favor; and Mayor Pat Stilwell, McLain and Gilliam opposed.

Following some other budget-related discussions, Gibson revisited the Senior Center contribution and made another motion to set it at $20,000. That motion failed 3-3 again.

Gibson then asked Mayor Stilwell what figure she could agree to, and Stilwell made a motion for $14,000, but it failed for lack of a second.

Patrick then made a motion for $16,000, and that was approved 4-2 with Gilliam and McLain opposed.

Planning a new Fall Festival

The fireworks didn’t begin until after Alderman Mindy Fleishour made a motion to allocate $15,000 for the creation of a Fall Festival.

Gilliam warned against increasing budget spending and directed his comments toward Housewright.

Housewright: “We had an $89,000 surplus.”

Gilliam: “Do you spend it every time you get it? Somewhere along the line the taxpayers are going to get hit with this.”

Housewright: “Alderman, this board is creating the budget. Don’t make your case to me. Consult with the board. I don’t have a vote.”

Gibson: “You understand we have a multimillion dollar budget, and we’re talking about allocating $15,000 to create a Fall Festival for the community. We’re talking about crumbs in the budget.”

Gilliam: “(To Gibson) You’re always wanting to do something that’s going to make you look good. Why don’t you do something for the town, the senior citizens and everybody else?”

That comment was followed by a burst of laughter and comments about Gilliam’s previous vote against increasing the Senior Center contribution.

The BMA voted 5-1 in favor of the $15,000 Fall Festival funding with Gilliam voting no.

Housewright’s $10,000 raise

Stilwell noted that the board promised to give Housewright a $10,000 pay increase when he took over the the city recorder duties in addition to the city manager duties.

Mayor Pat Stilwell strongly supported giving city manager Mike Housewright a $10,000 raise.

In June of 2018, however, Housewright removed that raise from the 2018-19 budget due to fiscal constraints at the time and to prevent two other employees from being laid off.

Gilliam: “I’d like to see that in the minutes. If it ain’t on the minutes, it don’t hold water. I haven’t seen anything in the minutes that says you’re entitled to $10,000, and I called other people in the old administration, and they said that’s not true.”

Stilwell: “He’s done his job, and done it well. This was promised to him as part of his hiring. … I was here at the meeting when they promised that.”

Housewright noted that he never said he was entitled to anything, nor has he asked for the raise. He was hired as assistant city manager at $50,000, with the agreement that he would go to $55,000 when the previous city manager retired and he assumed those duties.

File photo of alderman Jim Gilliam and Mayor Pat Stilwell, who have a history of heated exchanges. At Thursday's BMA meeting Stilwell rebuked Gilliam for using the word "damn" during the budget discussion. That exchange can be heard in the recording. Stilwell has since faced a social media backlash when she referred to children with disabilities as “children that have defects”.

“It was also discussed that when Marion (Sandidge) retired and I assumed those (city recorder) responsibilities, that I would get a $10,000 raise,” Housewright said. “In June of 2018 I voluntarily wrote that out of the budget, and I never said a thing about it. But you (Gilliam) made this a point of contention because you want to pull at anything you can away from me.”

Housewright added, “You (Gilliam) have made this a personal point of contention, so I will tell you what. Don’t give me a raise. I will resign the office of the city recorder, and the city can hire someone for that position.”

Gilliam: “I wouldn’t give you $10,000 if you did deserve it.”

Housewright’s raise was approved 4-2 with Gilliam and McLain opposed.

The second and final reading of the budget will come up for a vote at the June 24 BMA meeting.


Education
featured
Sandy Davis retiring after 41 years at North High

By RICK WAGNER

KINGSPORT — Sandy Davis began working in the office of Sullivan North High School when it opened in August 1980, and she is retiring 41 years later.

She is leaving as North closes forever as a Sullivan County school later this month. The last day for students was a half-day on Thursday. Davis said she’ll likely be gone by the end of the month.

“I actually worked here during the summer (of 1980) and helped them set up the library,” Davis recalled recently.

She served three years as a receptionist at North before becoming secretary.

Add to that three years as a guidance secretary at the old Lynn View High School, and Davis will retire from Sullivan County Schools after 44 years of work.

Of course, that’s not counting if she volunteers to help with the opening of West Ridge High School, a merger of Sullivan North, South and Central.

Central and South will become Sullivan Central Middle and Sullivan Heights Middle, respectively, while North was sold to Kingsport and in the fall of 2023 is to become the city system’s new Sevier Middle School.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR DAVIS?

Davis said she really doesn’t have any hobbies other than work and spending time with her family and friends. “I’m going to try to visit more,” Davis said. “I may do some volunteer work.”

Davis said she figured she was in her job with Sullivan County Schools for the long haul in 1979, when her husband died unexpectedly.

“It was my second school year at Lynn View when my husband passed away. Massive heart attack at age 40,” Davis recalled.

“It really hasn’t seemed like a job. I loved it,” she said. “Work is my hobby.”

She said her coworkers seem like family and that in 1977, her son’s freshman year at Lynn View, she began her career with Sullivan County Schools at the same school.

They both subsequently moved to North in the fall of 1980, and in the spring of 1981 her son, Brent Skelton, became part of the first graduating class at North. He went on to graduate from Middle Tennessee State University and settled in the Nashville area.

“I wish I’d starting from the beginning taking notes and wrote a book,” Davis said of her more than four-decade career, adding that her biggest takeaway will be the people with whom she has worked. “They feel like family and friends.”

Davis has worked under seven principals: J.B. Robinson, a former Ketron High School principal who recently turned 101; Walter VanHuss; the late Benny Compton; the late Richard Carroll; Brent Palmer; Josh Davis; and current Principal Jennifer Wilburn.

Robinson was her principal when she was a student at Ketron.

“She is Sullivan North,” Wilburn said Friday. “She knows anything that anyone would want to know about this place.”

A retirement party was set for last Wednesday after the school day for Davis and seven other North retirees, but Wilburn said Davis is the longest-serving one.

Wilburn said Davis has been the “right hand” to many principals. “When people need information, it’s Sandy that they call,” Wilburn said. “She’s here because she loves the students and she loves the staff as well.”

Josh Davis, no relation to Sandy Davis, is the new principal of West Ridge, and the retiring secretary said she has offered to work a bit in the transition to the new school, which is off Exit 63 of Interstate 81 near Tri-Cities Airport, if he needs her.

“I would not have retired if it hadn’t been for the drive,” she said.

BIGGEST CHANGE SINCE 1980?

Asked about the biggest change in her job since 1980, Davis said it has been the advent of computers in most every aspect of her work, including keeping up with the monthly absentee reports.

“It used to take us three days to do our monthly report, absentee report,” Davis said of keeping up with a student population that once was 1,400 compared to about 420 high schoolers today.


Local-news
featured
Police wiretaps: Not what you see on TV

By MATTHEW LANE

BLOUNTVILLE — Con- ducting a wiretap is not glamorous, as portrayed on television and in the movies. It’s labor intensive, includes long stretches of boredom, and is not done nearly as often as most people would think.

According to the most recent wiretap report (filed in 2019), there were only 19 wiretaps authorized by state courts in Tennessee and just 17 in Virginia. All of these cases involved either drug crimes or conspiracy charges.

At the local level, the last wiretap operation to be run out of the Sullivan County District Attorney’s Office was more than a decade ago with the James “Jimmie” Swafford case. Swafford was sentenced to 30 years in prison for selling more than 300 pounds of marijuana and 300 grams of cocaine through several Kingsport nightclubs. He is currently on parole.

The Swafford wiretap happened only because of the seriousness of the case and the fact the DA’s office had substantial support from the Drug Task Force, TBI and law enforcement offices in Kingsport, Bristol and Sullivan County.

“It was just so labor intensive,” said Gene Perrin, assistant district attorney in Sullivan County. “But we had a commitment (from other law enforcement departments) to not only commit and assign officers and detectives to the unit, but to also pay them overtime.”

Due to this financial commitment, Perrin said, Northeast Tennessee simply doesn’t have the resources to conduct more wiretap operations.

“Especially if you don’t have the people to listen to the calls or the investigators to immediately go to certain locations to monitor activity,” Perrin said.

HOW THE PROCESS WORKS

Before law enforcement can use a wiretap to intercept a call in real time, a court order is required. In Tennessee, only the most serious criminal offenses qualify for an intercept order.

“Typically you’ll find most wiretapping orders going down in felony drug cases or conspiracy to commit felony drug offenses dealing with substantial amounts of drugs,” Perrin said. “And normally you’ll see it in criminal homicide cases.”

To secure a wiretap, an application must be submitted to the court. Law enforcement must show probable cause of criminal activity and the particular phone being used to further this criminal activity, Perrin said. Investigators also have to prove to the court that the suspect is using the phone to further his or her criminal enterprise.

Finally, if the court approves the wiretap, there are a number of preliminary steps law enforcement has to take before the listening in takes place. Again, it’s not as simple as shown on TV.

“Each case has unique characteristics which inform the direction of the investigation and the means of gathering information, including the use of wiretaps,” said Wayne Taylor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Greeneville. “Those decisions are often based on law enforcement-sensitive techniques about which we are unable to comment.”

THE END RESULTS

Before the wiretap is up and running, Perrin said, an orientation session takes place during which every person who is going to be part of the operation understands a few things: the law, why the order was entered, the goal of the investigation, and the consequences of violating the court order.

One thing that’s very important to remember is the requirement of minimization, Perrin said.

“Law enforcement can only listen to calls pertaining to the criminal activity. If they’re on the phone talking to suppliers, co-conspirators, customers, law enforcement can continue to listen and record and act in real time on it,” Perrin said. “If the caller is talking to his wife about picking up the kids after school or (taking them) to a ballgame, unless law enforcement can establish a connection between his wife and the criminal activity, they must minimize that call and they can’t record it.”

Courts in Tennessee issued 19 wiretaps in 2019, resulting in 247 arrests. In Virginia, those numbers were 17 and 62.

To ensure the wiretap is being used as intended and is necessary for the investigation, law enforcement must file a report with the court every 10 days, Perrin said. It gives the judge an update on the investigation, how law enforcement is complying with the court, and how extending the wiretap is making a difference.

“(Wiretaps) are not open-ended. You can’t just listen as long as you want to listen,” Perrin said. “You have to report to the court what’s going on. Then the court can extend it or not. It’s a very closely scrutinized law enforcement tool that’s not to be abused.”


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