Gumshoe Citizens

Leaving ethics enforcement to bystanders

The General Assembly has passed an ethics bill, but it's up to you to enforce it.

The bill relies on all you citizens out there to police the ethics of the Legislature and report violations. I'm sure some of you can use your vacation time to go to Nashville and keep a sharp eye out.

The onus for prosecuting unethical legislators seems to fall on a fellow named Torry Johnson. Who is he? Well, he's the guy the people of Davidson County (Nashville) have elected as their district attorney general. I'm sure he will spend a whole lot of time looking for out of town legislators violating ethics laws and bringing them to justice. I'm also sure this politician, who has to run for election, is champing at the bit to prosecute powerful members of the General Assembly or members of Gov. Phil Bredesen's administration.

The Tennessee Constitution calls for an appointed attorney general, and changing the constitution to make the position elected is a high hurdle. State Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Lebanon, has a bill that would elevate the current office of solicitor general to an elected position and vest the office with many of the powers of an attorney general. This would allow a person elected by the people in a position to investigate public corruption and prosecute ethical violations.

You can't take any ethics bill passed by the General Assembly seriously until its members give that bill serious consideration and set up an enforcement mechanism. They keep passing speeding bills without funding any cops. Having an office elected statewide charged with enforcing the law has been proposed at various times going back to the days when it was argued by a young legislator named Victor Ashe. One wonders how bad ethical problems would have to get before the people start demanding their own prosecutor, beholden only to the voters.

State Sen. John Ford, D-Memphis, the latest impetus for good government in the Legislature, has announced he will not run for re-election. Well, that's a no-brainer. Up to now he has been able to hold office while pulling down hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting (lobbying?) fees. But now he has been found out. So what will he do? Well, he will give up the paltry salary for being a legislator and keep the consulting fees. A Ford from Memphis doesn't have to hold down an office to get things done and to "fix" problems. He will continue to rake in the money. Unless, of course, he's too busy helping the FBI with their inquiries.

Meanwhile, it has been discovered that state grants through the Economic Development Office totaling over $2 million have been going to a Ford associate and Ford's campaign treasurer. The General Assembly puts grants into the budget to various entities; the state cuts the checks and mails them. No one checks to see where the money goes or how it is used. This, of course, would be another job for the solicitor general.

Current Attorney General Paul Summers has opined that the Legislature can't require members like Ford to live in their districts. He says the Constitution says they only have to live in the county. This would appear to get Ford off the hook on his residency requirement, and it killed a bill that requires members to live in their districts.

They have, instead, passed a bill that says they can't use a business address for the residency requirement. Like a Memphis funeral home.

Gov. Phil Bredesen came into office with a strong statement on ethics. He put in strict guidelines for his staff forbidding them to do business with the state or have any interest in a business doing business with the state. This came in the wake of an ongoing investigation of former Gov. Don Sundquist's friends.

But Bredesen has remained on the sidelines during all the reporting of ethical breaches in the Legislature and the debate on ethics legislation. The Tennessean points out that, amid all the Ford scandals, Bredesen waited weeks to reveal that Ford had approached him in 2003 to lobby for more TennCare business for OmniCare. OmniCare is a TennCare contractor that had a contract with a group that paid Ford $237,000 for lobbying. Since Ford argued that he only lobbied out of state, Bredesen's knowledge of Ford lobbying him would seem to be germane to the investigation.

The governor needs to become more actively involved in cleaning up this mess. He needs to follow through with a threat to veto budget line items for questionable grants. He needs to support establishing an elected solicitor general. He is the only state official elected statewide and the only one elected to represent all the people. He needs to show some leadership on this issue.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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