Speedy Ethics Fixes
Get politics out of the Tennessee Highway Patrol
Should a legislative special session create some sort of official or commission to enforce ethics laws, let’s be sure it has the authority to look at all aspects of state government—including the political action committee known as the Tennessee Highway Patrol. Too many times assignments and promotions in this department depend on whom you supported in the last election. Or who you let skate on a speeding ticket or DUI.
From time to time a scandal erupts about ticket-fixing, political transfers and such, but one suspects more of it goes on than gets noticed.
The Tennessean did a report last Sunday on “Honorary” Highway Patrol Captains. Big contributors, celebrities and key local politicos get an ID that looks just like a Highway Patrol Captain’s ID, except for the little “honorary” at the bottom of the card. They also get a shiny badge. This is considered a handy thing to have when you get pulled over for speeding.
You will remember that Deputy Gov. Dave Cooley was reprimanded by his boss because one of his speeding tickets got fixed. His wife and brother-in-law, working in the Department of Safety, were transferred. On the list of “honorary” captains the newspaper found Cooley’s father-in-law, his brother and his sister-in-law.
Given the general whiff of corruption going on in Nashville at the moment, having to do with an FBI sting of legislators, this latest revelation gives you some idea of the culture of state government. It doesn’t rank with taking bribes, as legislators have been accused of doing, but it comes from the same mindset. There is a general air of entitlement among big campaign contributors, state employees and politicians. They are not like you. They can’t be bothered by rules, regulations or even speeding tickets.
This is not a Democrat vs. Republican issue. The Honorary Captains have been around for 30 years. It happens with all administrations because it is a time-honored political practice. I will go so far as to say that Gov. Phil Bredesen probably grinds his teeth when he hears about crap like this. As a semi-outsider, Bredesen does not have the natural instinct to get involved in these sorts of routine political payoffs. He has generally come down hard on people in his administration who have been involved in ethical breeches. But that doesn’t mean the political superstructure around him hasn’t been carrying on business as usual. In fact, after the story ran, Bredesen ordered his Department of Safety to stop issuing the honorary captain badges and IDs.
On that honorary Highway Patrol list you will find local Bredesen supporters like Knox County Clerk Mike Padgett, Tom Ingram, former head of the Knox Area Chamber Partnership, Knoxville Fire Department Captain Dennis Beckley (politics in the fire department!), Doug Horne, former state Democratic Party Chair, and Mose Lobetti, perennial political operative. Then there are celebrities like UT Coach Phil Fulmer and actor David Keith. Under former Republican Gov. Don Sundquist, “honorary” captain’s badges mostly went to some of his commissioners and to big contributors.
The Legislature, of course, issues its own tips for politically-minded state troopers. They have their own license plates identifying themselves as legislators. Not to mention all their family members. They also issue tags, for the front of the vehicle, to friends, supporters and big contributors. This is done as a service to troopers so that they know they risk pissing off somebody important if they give them a ticket.
We had a spectacle this week when a citizen just happened to have a videotape camera/radar gun in his car so he could tape Senate Majority Leader Ron Ramsey blowing down the interstate at better than 90 miles per hour. He was able to identify Ramsey on the tape by the RLR Senate license plate. Then he turned it over to WATE-TV.
Next thing you know, citizens will be staking out cockfights and whorehouses looking for legislative plates. When will members of the General Assembly realize that these plates never do them any good and have the potential to do them a lot of harm?
There are, of course, scores of troopers who just try to do their jobs and avoid politics altogether. But given the pervasive political influences in the organization, life is not easy. Getting on the wrong side of the political machine currently in power can mean a trooper from Loudon County can get transferred to a county in West Tennessee.
If the current special session produces some sort of ethics panel, let’s be sure it has the power to outlaw legislative plates, permanently ban honorary badges and forbid political transfers. The law is supposed to be for everybody, but we need to make it clear for the troopers, members of any gubernatorial administration and legislators as well.
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .