The spokesman for Tennessee’s lieutenant governor committed what may have been an illegal act last month when he blasted off an official government press release touting his boss’s GOP presidential primary favorite.
Even though his admitted lapse in judgment was reported in the media, the staffer didn’t get in much, if any trouble for it, at least according to records obtained by TNReport Tuesday.
Adam Kleinheider, who serves as communications director for Tennessee’s most powerful state senator, Speaker Ron Ramsey, is the only legislative employee in recent memory to be publicly identified for doing political work with state resources, according to Connie Ridley, director of the Office of Legislative Administration. She said the matter was “handled internally” by Ramsey’s office.
Kleinheider’s government personnel file, kept by the Office of Legislative Administration, does not include any reference to disciplinary action taken against him. Requests through Ramsey’s office for records, emails and correspondence pertaining to Kleinheider’s punishment or reprimand came up empty, although internal legislative office correspondence is not subject to the same Tennessee open-records standards as executive-branch communications.
The Aug. 10 press release featured the lieutenant governor issuing “a strong statement of support” for Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was then on the cusp of announcing his bid to seek his party’s presidential nomination in 2012. The release, sent from Kleinheider’s state government email address, named Kleinheider himself as the point man for questions, with his state office phone number provided as a contact.
“I believe Gov. Perry to be the man best suited to lead this fight,” Ramsey was quoted as saying in the press release. “If (Perry) sees fit to make the decision many expect him to, I let him know today that I’ll be there to support him in any way I can.”
Kleinheider, once a popular blogger and highly regarded news-aggregation website operator, took a job in the Senate speaker’s office this past February.
He told the Knoxville News Sentinel that sending out the pro-Perry news release from a government account “was a disregard of policy on my part and unintentional. … I’m still semi-new at this.”
He added he was on break when he wrote the release. Kleinheider’s time sheet for Aug. 10 indicates he clocked out at 2 p.m. The press release was emailed at 3:10 pm.
Kleinheider refused requests for additional comment and declined to detail any disciplinary action taken against him and instead referred to his statement in the Knoxville News Sentinel.
Other legislative staffers privately tell TNReport they’re constantly faced with decisions about whether the messages the government is paying them to send on behalf of their elected bosses are too political to be sent through state email accounts or written while on the clock or using government equipment or facilities.
“We try to make that very clear — that this is not something they should be doing on state time,” said Ridley, who did not release details of any punishment or reprimand Kleinheider may have received. “This is the only one (instance) that I’ve been aware of as it relates to political activity.”
Most lawmakers with whom TNReport has inquired about the matter say Kleinheider’s decision to send an apparent campaign endorsement as an official state news release is pretty small potatoes in the scheme of things — not something for which he probably ought to be fined, fired or incarcerated.
“When we’ve done it, they’ve criticized us tremendously for it. But we’ve got bigger fish to fry up here,” said Rep. Mike Turner, an Old Hickory Democrat and the minority caucus chairman in the House. “We’ve got people out of work. We’ve got things happening, and I’m not going to be petty and get on them about that.”
A former House Democratic spokesman did the same thing when he sent out a campaign email from his work account several years ago, Turner said, although the employee was never disciplined.
Nevertheless, sending those emails is still against the law, and there ought to be enough consequences to discourage it, said Dick Williams, chairman for Common Cause Tennessee.
“It just adds to the public cynicism that public officials can misuse their office,” said Williams, a longtime lobbyist at the Capitol. “Obviously, it doesn’t rise to the stature of a bribe or conflict of interest or anything, but it’s not a totally meaningless offense.”
Using state resources for political purposes falls under the “Little Hatch Act,” a Tennessee law passed in 1972, shortly after Winfield Dunn became Tennessee’s first Republican governor in 50 years. The motivation wasn’t to stop workers from doing political work on the job, but to prevent the GOP from replacing Democratic Party loyalists in state jobs with Republicans, said Larry Daughtrey, a retired Tennessean reporter who was stationed on Capitol Hill at the time.
State code 2-19-207 says: “It is unlawful for any person employed by the state to… perform political duties or functions of any kind not directly a part of such person’s employment, during those hours of the day when such person is required by law or administrative regulation to be conducting the business of the state.”
Those hours are from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Ridley said. Nowhere in Kleinheider’s job description does it say he has to pen and ship out election-related emails.
Violating the statute is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable with as much as a 30-day jail sentence, up to a $50 fine, or both, according to Ridley.
The department doesn’t have to sit on its heels waiting for complaints and can investigate suspicions of abuse independently of a formal query. Officials just haven’t had reason to, she said.
“There’s no trigger. It’s the policy,” said Ridley. “If we find out about it, we go after it.”
In 1939, Congress passed the original “Hatch Act” banning federal government employees from using their offices to bolster political campaigns. At the time, officials in Tennessee and other states had been known to pressure federal workers to assist in Democrats’ election campaigns.
Almost any communication coming out of lawmakers’ offices tends to come off looking “political,” whether they’re taking credit for a bill or bashing a rival’s policy stance.
Tax-supported self-congratulations, back-patting or backbiting in news releases or legislative mail pieces are mostly tolerated, provided they include obvious Tennessee state-government connections.
In fact, taxpayers spent more than $180,000 sending direct mail to voters in lawmakers’ districts between October 2009 and the 2010 primary election, according to the Tennessean.
About $77,000 of that was spent on mailers shipped out just after the end of the 2010 legislative session, many times by lawmakers facing re-election bids later that year. This spring, Republicans killed a measure looking to curb that practice, saying it was “just another Democratic initiative.”
“It’s a difficult line because we’re involved not only in policy but also politics,” said House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Nashville Republican. “We clearly want to be public servants, and we understand the difference between elections and the political process and then service and what we do here in the governing level.”