frank_talk (2006-02)

Ethics Session Scorecard

Examine previous Highway Patrol corruption? Bring it on

by Frank Cagle

Thoughts on the opening of a special session of the General Assembly on ethics:

• One of the first items of business will be to decide whether to seat newly elected state Sen. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis, who is alleged to have won a special election to replace her brother, the indicted former state Sen. John Ford. Before everyone overreacts here, there is something we need to keep in mind. The Ford family funeral home in Memphis has been serving the dead community for decades. Is it really so hard to believe that some dead people would want to return the favor and vote for Ophelia? The Republicans are known to be narrow-minded on voting rights issues, having previously opposed voting by felons and illegal aliens. Now they are trying to discriminate against the dead.

• Do you wonder, during the special session on ethics, if the legislative leaders will go out to dinner every night and whether they will be embarrassed in the slightest to let some lobbyist pick up the check?

• State Sen. Jeff Miller, R-Pond Scum, has been labeled No Show Miller for his propensity to go on golf outings during session and for not showing up for ethics committee meetings. Is there any incentive for the sponsor of the Defense of Marriage Act to show up during the ethics session now that his legislative secretary/girl friend has resigned in the wake of his messy divorce?

• Republicans have suggested that hearings will be held on all the scandals that have been reported in the Tennessee Highway Patrol: political payoffs, cronyism and troopers with criminal records. It would be up to state Sen. Mark Norris, chair of the Transportation Committee. (The Department of Safety is in the Transportation Department. Go figure.) In an interview, Gov. Phil Bredesen told Tom Humphrey, the dean of the Capitol Hill press corps, that if the Republicans want a partisan fight over trooper misconduct he is prepared to go back and examine what went on under Republican administrations, like former Gov. Don Sundquist’s. “…let’s just say we’ll go back 10 years and turn over all of the rocks. Just ask me. I’d be delighted to do so.”

Bring it on governor. You couldn’t be more delighted than we will be. Let’s put it all out there and examine all the corruption. We don’t care if they are a Republican or a Democrat. The biggest mistake Bredesen and legislators will make during this special session is to assume that the people are taking partisan sides in this. The people are just sick of it and want it stopped.

• It has been suggested that the two indicted senators awaiting trial not be allowed to attend session or participate. I think that’s the wrong approach. It will be instructive for the public to see them sitting there in the Senate chamber, being offered every courtesy and being prayed over by Lt. Gov. John Wilder.

• If you are going to create a new ethics commission to enforce laws dealing with the behavior of legislators and lobbyists, then you need to abolish the Registry of Election Finance. For the love of God, we don’t need two toothless boards voting along party lines.

• Rather than just say the Legislature is subject to the state open meetings law you have proposed new language that covers opening up legislative meetings. What is it about what you require of everyone else that you don’t want to require of yourselves?

• The state Constitution says that ministers are disqualified for service in the General Assembly. We assume the framers did not want preachers corrupted by legislative service. Though no one pays any attention to the prohibition, maybe we ought to repeal it anyway and recruit ministers to run for the General Assembly. Then all the sinning would be done behind closed doors and it would be hard for lobbyists to fund it.

• The Democrats have the votes to pass any ethics bill they want, they can amend it in any manner they want, and the Republicans have little say in the final wording. Is it any wonder that Minority Leader Bill Dunn is hesitant to be listed as a co-sponsor on the bill when he has no say in what’s in it?

• Something to keep in mind in your ethics coverage reading. State Sen. Mike Williams, R-Maynardville, will show up in news stories as a Republican, thus lending a bipartisan color to anything the Democrats pass. Williams voted to retain Democrat John Wilder as lieutenant governor, favors seating state Sen. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis, in spite of allegations of a corrupt election, and favors the Democratic proposal to limit the amount of money rich conservatives can contribute to political campaigns. If rich Republicans can still contribute unlimited amounts to election PACs it is very likely that whoever runs against Williams next time will get all the contributions they need. Self-interest is not the same as “bipartisanship.”

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .