08/20/2008

Tenn. trooper accused of privacy invasion

The Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Tennessee state trooper was suspended Tuesday after investigators said he used his position to conduct 182 background checks - at least some of them unauthorized - on people including two journalists and a country music figure.

Officials with the Tennessee Highway Patrol declined to name the people who were checked. Investigators did not recognize the names of any elected officials or politicians on the list, said Col. Mike Walker, the THP's commander.

The latest suspension adds to a series of scandals involving the department in recent years.

Walker and Safety Commissioner Dave Mitchell were brought in to help clean up the department's image after its top three officials resigned in December 2005 following reports of troopers with criminal backgrounds, allegations of ticket-fixing and a culture of cronyism and political arm-twisting.

Many of the problems were revealed in a series of investigative stories by The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville.

In another unrelated scandal, a trooper resigned last year after a porn actress claimed he let drug charges slide in exchange for oral sex in an encounter captured on video.

Suspended Lt. Ronnie Shirley accessed the records between October and July, Walker said. Shirley's motive remains unclear.

"It looks more for nosiness purposes, maybe," Walker said. "There does not appear to be any pattern of any type where there is an attempt to harm someone."

Investigators aren't sure how many of those checks were improper, but Safety Commissioner Dave Mitchell said "there were unauthorized queries, absolutely."

Some of Shirley's records checks appear to have been made at the request of others, Walker said. Shirley has been placed on administrative leave until the investigation is complete.

Officials say the internal Web portal accessed by Shirley does not include criminal background records. Much of the information Shirley looked at is available to the general public, though some records are not, like those kept in a Correction Department database.

Gov. Phil Bredesen described what Shirley was accused of doing as "rummaging around in the driver's license records and those types of things."

Bredesen said he was satisfied by the early results of the investigation.

"There is at this point no evidence whatsoever any public officials were targeted or any political maneuverings going on," he said.

Shirley first got attention in 2004 after helping get a speeding ticket dismissed for former Deputy Gov. Dave Cooley, who was then Bredesen's top aide. An investigation into the ticket-fixing resulted in reprimands for Cooley and Shirley.

Bredesen, a Democrat, said the current investigation shows the agency is serious about addressing its problems.

"I know anything that involves the THP is juicy fodder," he said. "But the last couple of years they've done an awful lot to clean that place up."

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