Portsmouth, Virginia’s colorful, chain-smoking sheriff is in trouble again. This time, he’s accused of using prison inmates to work at a political fundraiser.
The accusations come only a week after Sheriff Bill Watson admitted that he used inmates to build a new garage on his house. In that case, Watson defiantly proclaimed that he did nothing wrong because he paid the inmates $10 per hour out of his own bank account.
Then, during a televised interview, Watson took a copy of the Code of Virginia, the state’s laws, and crumpled it — an interesting bit of symbolism for a top law enforcement official.
The latest allegation is that he used inmates on work release to set up tents, tables and chairs at a backyard fundraising event for Portsmouth’s vice mayor Paige Cherry. Again, the embattled sheriff says he didn’t do anything wrong.
Putting up and taking down tents is just one of things the inmates always do, he says. He provides the service for events all over the city, including weddings and bar mitzvahs.
Watson (pictured) didn’t even know that Cherry’s event was political in nature.
"We never ask why," Watson said. “They could put a whiskey still in there for all we know. We put 'em up around 8 in the morning and take them down the next day usually."
Asked why the sheriff’s department is in the business of helping people set up their private parties, Watson said, "I'm a firm believer that if you live in the City of Portsmouth you're entitled to something for free now and then.”
Watson is in the middle of a re-election campaign in which the Democratic incumbent is up against a Republican and two independents. At a debate over the weekend, Watson singled out one of the independents for special praise, saying that Ron Wood, who briefly served as a deputy a quarter-century ago, “is the only one who really qualifies. He's the only one who has any experience with the Sheriff's Office."
The praise came just two weeks after Watson personally pulled Wood over for a traffic stop, after which he said of his challenger, “The guy is strange. His lights are on but ain't nobody home."
SOURCES: WAVY TV, Virginian-Pilot (2)