NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Did the wife of a Nashville politician secretly borrow thousands of dollars in cash from a government office where she worked?
That question was at the center of an investigation this time last year that some folks wanted to keep secret, especially from NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
She claims she accidentally took the money home and forgot about it.
But recordings from an internal investigation inside the Davidson County Sheriff's Office reveal that insiders worried about the possible repercussions.
"Who all is going to know ... about what is on this tape?" one high-ranking official asked when interviewed by an internal affairs investigator.
At the center of the investigation inside Sheriff Daron Hall's office was employee Gay Rooker. She's the wife of the politically connected Circuit Court Clerk Ricky Rooker.
"I don't view her as her just for political purposes -- she had a legitimate function here," Sheriff Hall said, while acknowledging that she had been hired as a favor to her husband. "I would say that's not unusual."
Gay Rooker was in charge of the money in the section that collects funds seized for lawsuits. But in late 2009, sheriff's Maj. Jim McDowell recalled, one of his captains began getting complaints about thousands of dollars not being turned in to the courts.
"He had asked Gay about it on more than one occasion, and she either didn't respond or told him that she was taking care of it, whatever she did to dismiss him," McDowell recalled.
The sheriff said that Rooker had promised "I'm going to have it all resolved before I head on vacation."
But after Rooker left town in January 2009, headed to Las Vegas, a supervisor asked Capt. James Warren to open the small safe where the money was kept.
"I was opening it up," Warren remembered. "I opened it up and I didn't see anything but a damn paper clip. And I said, "Oh, s**t!"
Sheriff Hall said, "When it wasn't there is when I think we can all say that we all began to be more concerned that, not only is it not here, then where is it?"
But the captain had kept his mouth shut, explaining:
"I was just put in the position where I was thinking more political wise, you know, because she told me that if this gets out, if Phil Williams hears about it and all this, Ricky would go, it would take his job and all that s**t."
Hall said that Rooker "was asking him to wait until I get a chance to tell my husband and tell my supervisors and all of that. That's his version of events. The policy says you tell us anyway."
Warren continued, "I didn't know what to do because of the position that she's in and her husband's in and the sheriff's in. I thought, man, if this gets out."
According to the investigation, Rooker first claimed that an inmate must have stolen the money, that -- rather than reporting it -- she had been paying it back little-by-little out of her own pocket.
The sheriff says that was an odd story.
"If it so happened to be a theft or something else, it's not your job to pay the money back anyway," Hall noted, saying it wasn't logical to him. "That's not your responsibility. You don't have to pay the money back."
But then, after Rooker got back from Vegas, she suddenly called and said she just found all the money stuffed in envelopes in a computer bag at her house.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Hall, "Did that make sense to you? Were you suspicious?"
"At that point," he answered, "I was done."
Gay Rooker resigned.
Still, inside the sheriff's office, Maj. McDowell told the investigator there were rumors. "Comments are, you know, 'She embezzled that money and just because of her last name nothing happened to her. That's just wrong.'"
District Attorney General Torry Johnson said the sheriff had called him immediately. But in the end Johnson concluded that "while the circumstances are certainly suspicious," there was "insufficient evidence" of "a crime that could be successfully prosecuted."
"We couldn't show that it was not, in fact, the same money," Johnson said, referring to the cash that Rooker turned in. "There was not evidence to really indicate that it wasn't in fact mislaid and uncovered and returned to the sheriff." Read the DA's file regarding the investigation
Hall said he still doesn't understand what happened. "What I do know is that all the moneys were accounted for and that she is no longer working here."
Still, insiders worried.
Maj. McDowell told the investigator, "I would hate it if it ever had the perception that someone was treated differently because of their last name.."
Gay Rooker did not respond to messages that at her home and with her husband.
In the end, not only did she resign, but the captain who failed to report that the money was missing was suspended for several days.
Rooker was hired for a part-time job back in December at Metro Public Works, but the director there said he was never told about her problems at the sheriff's office.
After NewsChannel 5 began investigating, she resigned from there as well.
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