Anonymous lawmaker unaware ethics panel could spend money or hand out punishment.
Photo: Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton Photo Credit: John Partipilo
By Sam Stockard [Tennessee Lookout -CC BY-NC-ND 4.0] –
House Speaker Cameron Sexton is pointing at the Office of Legislative Administration and a House ethics subcommittee in the expense of nearly $9,000 in the case of a 19-year-old intern harassed by former Rep. Scotty Campbell.
Yet an anonymous member of the bipartisan panel wasn’t aware the subcommittee had the authority to spend money or mete out punishment.
The conflicting responses display the vagueness of the Legislature’s Workplace Discrimination and Harassment Policy, showing how it can be manipulated to cover up wrongdoing.
Asked Monday who authorized the expenditures to relocate an intern to a new apartment complex in the final days of the Legislature’s session, Sexton’s spokesman Doug Kufner said state law, TCA 3-13-101 (a)10, enables the Office of Legislative Administration director to “make disbursements of funds for all other lawful expenses of the General Assembly.” He added that “the bipartisan Workplace Discrimination and Harassment Subcommittee working with the Office of Legislative Administration has the ability and authority to disburse funds.”
Along with paying for more than three weeks at a downtown hotel, the state paid to move the intern’s furniture back home and gave her nearly $1,000 in cash to cover costs at the apartment she left, according to a NewsChannel5 report.
Speaker Sexton claimed he knew very little about the case, including the money.
Sexton said he was made aware March 21 by Legislative Administration Director Connie Ridley of a complaint filed against Campbell and that no details were given to him. He said he told Ridley to investigate using the Legislature’s policy, which he signed in 2019, and on March 29 received the letter from the subcommittee that was placed in Campbell’s file informing him it found a violation occurred.
“Other than the letter, no other details were provided to the speaker,” Sexton said in a statement.
He laid out the same scenario to reporters on the final two days of the Legislature’s session in late April, claiming to know very few, if any, details about Campbell’s case.
In fact, Campbell remained in the Legislature for three weeks — voting to expel three Democratic lawmakers for violating House decorum — before resigning abruptly April 20 after NewsChannel5 reported on the case and just two hours after saying he would not step down from his post. The Johnson County Commission is expected to select a replacement Thursday night.
In response to a public records request, Ridley declined to answer any questions about the case, including who authorized the expenditures, citing a confidentiality clause in the policy that says no information about the complaint will be released to anyone who isn’t directly involved in an investigation, a lawsuit, corrective action or as required by law.
The policy also says if a violation is found, “prompt corrective action will be taken to stop the discrimination, harassment or retaliation and to prevent its recurrence. Actions taken will be based on the individual circumstances of the situation.”
Nothing in the policy, however, addresses the expenditure of state money. The Tennessee Lookout is still pursuing the information through a formal public records request.
An anonymous member of the ethics subcommittee said the policy is unclear about whether it can authorize the expense of money stemming from an investigation or sanction anyone found to have violated the workplace discrimination and harassment policy. The subcommittee placed its finding in Campbell’s file but did not mete out any punishment.
Members of the subcommittee, Rep. Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville, who chaired the panel, Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin, House Minority Leader Karen Camper of Memphis, and Rep. Bill Beck, D-Nashville, declined to speak about the matter citing the confidentiality clause.
Rep. Bo Mitchell, a Nashville Democrat, pointed out the policy does not authorize anyone to spend money, though it does give the panel the same power as other legislative committees.
“And I’ve never known any committee I’ve been on to have the ability to spend money,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell noted the expense would have to be made by someone with a budget and “spending capabilities.” He was uncertain whether the Office of Legislative Administration would have to get approval from the speaker’s office to spend money.
Yet lawmakers don’t believe Ridley would spend money without making sure she had permission.
Mitchell also declined to speculate whether the speaker’s office knew the details of the investigation from start to finish but said, “I would just assume from everything I know about the Tennessee General Assembly, that there’s leadership for reasons.”
Mitchell noted he was not opposed to spending money to protect the victim but contended the state shouldn’t be handing out cash.
“We’re not a crime syndicate. We’ve gotta be able to track our moneys,” he said.
In addition, Mitchell questioned how the expenses could be exempt from the Tennessee Public Records Act.
Besides refusing to answer questions about the expense of money, Ridley declined to say which budget the funds came from, how many harassment complaints the subcommittee has handled in the last three years and how many might have been filed against lawmakers.
About the Author: Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state’s best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association. Follow Stockard on Twitter @StockardSam