LaFollette city-owned SUV crashes; officials question trip

LaFollette city-owned SUV crashes; officials question nature of trip

Posted:
Cade Sexton (source: City of LaFollette website) Cade Sexton (source: City of LaFollette website)
Hansford Hatmaker (source: City of LaFollette website) Hansford Hatmaker (source: City of LaFollette website)

By MIKE KRAFCIK
6 News Reporter

LAFOLLETTE (WATE) - Questions have been raised about a trip made by two LaFollette city officials. It's getting attention from other leaders because along the way a city-owned SUV was involved in a crash.

A 2002 Ford Explorer registered with the city of LaFollette and used by City Administrator Cade Sexton crashed Friday around 3:30 p.m. on Interstate 40 outside of Jackson, Tennessee.

Vice Mayor Hansford Hatmaker was driving the vehicle at the time of the crash.

The wreck happened after a Tennessee state trooper had pulled over a Nissan SUV. As Hatmaker approached the two vehicles, he was unable to move into the left lane because a tractor-trailer truck was there, the THP report said.

The right side of the front end of the Ford Explorer struck the left side of the back of the Nissan, causing the Explorer to sideswipe the driver's side of the Nissan, according to the report.

Both Sexton and Hatmaker were wearing their seatbelts and neither was injured, the report said.

Hatmaker and Sexton were on their way back from attending a graduation ceremony at the Mark Luttrell Correctional Complex in Memphis, according to Sexton.

"The vice mayor asked that I go with him to this program. I said yes and I went," Sexton said.

Sexton said he and Hatmaker met with Patricia Bridges with the Tennessee Department of Corrections about discussion of bringing a rehabilitation center to LaFollette or Campbell County.

"This lady is very interested in starting, and we're interested in a program, for people who can be released after they meet certain training sessions," Sexton said. 

According to a Tennessee Department of Corrections spokesperson, Hatmaker and Sexton attended a graduation ceremony at the Mark Luttrell Correctional Complex on Jan. 4. They checked into the correctional center at 10:15 a.m. and checked out at 2:30 p.m.

TDOC confirmed Patricia Bridges attended the graduation, saying she visited with "several guests," but couldn't confirm she met specifically with Hatmaker or Sexton.

Among those graduating from the "Release for Success" was Rebecca Cunningham, of LaFollette.

According to TDOC records, Hatmaker was granted visitation time to visit with Cunningham.

Cunningham, 37, is listed as an inmate at Mark Luttrell Correctional. She began a prison sentence in May 2010.

Sexton maintains the trip was for business and has no idea who Hatmaker visited.

"Twenty-six people, or whatever it is there, ask me which one he visited. I don't know," Sexton said.

Hatmaker was approved and placed on Rebecca Cunninghams' visitation list in December 2011.  He visited Cunningham on December 17, 2011 and then again on January 4, 2013.

LaFollette Mayor Mike Stanfield said he didn't know about the trip until he heard about the accident on Monday. He has been investigating whether the trip was for personal or city business.

"I was kind of more suspicious. I felt a little deceived. We don't need to be slapped in the face like this from city officials," said Mayor Stanfield.

City Councilman Bob Fannon had questioned the purpose of the trip to the correctional center.

Sexton and Cade filed reimbursement requests to the city, including gas, a $49.99 hotel room for one night and $175 for a rental car to get back to LaFollette.

The city vehicle had to be towed from the scene to a Tennessee Department of Transportation impoundment center in Jackson County.

The claim was filed through the city's insurance.

"It seems a little odd to me, and it should be investigated to see what's going on, since taxpayer money was used to not only for wrecking an automobile, but paying for them to come back in a rental car," Fannon said.

Fannon said suspicion was aroused during Tuesday's LaFollette city council meeting when he asked Hatmaker what happened. Fannon said he first heard about the accident on Monday.

"I asked Mr. Hatmaker about the wreck and he said it was none of my business," Fannon said.

Fannon said he never previously heard or witnessed discussions of talk of a women's correctional center in LaFollette.

Fannon has served various terms in LaFollette City Council since 1996.

"I keep up with it, even when I was off council. Nothing has been mentioned about a correctional center," Fannon.

Hansford Hatmaker is the senior member of the Council, having served two terms prior to this current one. He is now in his tenth year as a member.

Hatmaker is not a city employee, but earns $400 per month as vice mayor and as a council member.

Hatmaker could not be reached for comment. Hatmaker was able to drive a city vehicle because he had permission from Sexton, the city administrator. Hatmaker is also covered under the city's automobile insurance plans.

The THP cruiser that initiated the traffic stop wasn't hit. Hatmaker was cited for violation of the move over law, the report said.

City Council is expected to discuss the issue at its next meeting on Feb. 12.

The group could recommend disciplinary actions such as terminations and suspensions for Cade Sexton, a part-time, hourly city employee.

"We will deal with some kind of actions," said Stanfield.

"The people need to know to the truth. We need to get to the bottom of this, straighten this out and see what's going on," said Fannon.

Another council member, Joe Bolinger, said he had no idea about the trip until he found about the accident on Monday.

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