Shipley Wants TBI to Release Records in Probe of Lawmakers

State Rep. Tony Shipley said he plans to push for a House committee to subpoena the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s files in the recently concluded inquiry into legislative actions by Shipley and Rep. Dale Ford.

Shipley and Ford were subjects of a TBI probe into whether they had exerted improper influence over a state nursing board that had disciplined three nurses from their East Tennessee area. This week Davidson County District Attorney General Torry Johnson announced that he had found no evidence of any crime and would not pursue charges against the two lawmakers.

Shipley, R-Kingsport, said he would use the House Government Operations Committee, on which he serves as secretary, to seek the files. He would need the support of a majority of the members, and Shipley said he would try to enlist one of them to introduce the matter.

But lawyers for the committee cast doubt on the likelihood of getting the records. Legislative subpoenas are rare, they said, and with TBI pushback the matter could end up in court before any documents were released.

TBI files are among the most secretive documents in Tennessee.

They are exempt from the state’s Open Records Act, a fact which has drawn renewed attention of late, especially with regards to the TBI’s investigation of Richard Baumgartner, a disgraced and disbarred Knox County Criminal Court judge who was abusing drugs and engaging in other illegal activity while presiding over cases.

In the wake of TBI revelations that Knox County court employees and other judges, as well as prosecutors in the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office, may have witnessed Judge Baumgartner engaging in ethically suspect or illegal behavior and did nothing about it, the Knoxville News Sentinel editorialized in favor of the public gaining access to TBI files once an investigation is wrapped up.

“Lawmakers should show courage…and side with the public and its right to know about closed police investigations by eliminating TBI’s exemption from the Public Records Act,” the News Sentinel editors wrote last month.

However,  state law already gives committees from either chamber of the General Assembly the power to subpoena all government records. According to state law, “investigative records of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation shall be open to inspection by elected members of the general assembly if such inspection is directed by a duly adopted resolution of either house or of a standing or joint committee of either house.”

Once a committee obtained the files, Shipley said it would be his intention to make them open to the public.

“There’s nothing I do here that’s not completely aboveboard or open to the public,” Shipley said. “If I bring it to committee, at that point, I don’t have to call for anything. (It’s) wide open.”

Ford, R-Jonesborough, said he doesn’t care who sees the file, either.

“If you didn’t do anything wrong, why should you care if everything’s made public,” he said. “I couldn’t care less. But it better be the truth, I can tell you that.”

Shipley has turned his ire on Johnson, who said the lawmakers used “particularly heavy-handed” political pressure.

“I’m a huge supporter of the TBI. I’m a huge supporter of district attorneys. I’m a complete law and order kind of guy,” Shipley said. “But even in those organizations you can have jerks that get in there and mess with the constitution because they think they can. And they can’t.”

The TBI launched the investigation last June to determine if the two legislators and employees of the state’s Health Department had committed any crimes, including official misconduct and false reporting, and whether the lawmakers had improperly pressured the Nursing Board to reconsider its decision to discipline three nurse practitioners.

The nurses had been accused of over-prescribing medication at the Appalachian Medical Center in Johnson City, which has since been closed. Shipley and Ford through legislation attempted to shake up the nursing board and its oversight, and raised the specter of doing away with the board altogether. Ford had family ties to an employee and patient at the center.

The board eventually reversed its action against the nurses, though a TBI investigation into their actions remains open.

On Monday, Johnson announced that the state would not prosecute the two legislators. In a statement, he called the case one of “political hardball, but not political corruption.”

Shipley characterized the district attorney’s actions and criticism as a breach of the separation of powers, and the handling of the nurses’ case an “abortion of justice.”

“It is completely inappropriate for them to have stuck their hands into the legislative box,” Shipley said. “The DA made a statement: No criminality found. He should have stopped right there.

“His next comment was totally inappropriate: ‘Heavy-handed politics.’ Well, what was heavy-handed was the TBI’s DA-directed investigation that was blown from Mountain City to Memphis. That was heavy-handed.”

Shipley said he may initiate a legislative probe into where the allegations came from and whether charges could be filed against the individuals responsible for them.

He said the charges of official misconduct should have been seen as baseless from the beginning, because the three criteria for such a charge were impossible in his case. He said there couldn’t have been money or sex exchanged for a vote, because no vote was taken, and that no one’s employment could have been threatened, because he doesn’t have the power to fire anyone on the Nursing Board.

Gov. Bill Haslam recently announced he wants a review of Tennessee’s 22 state boards and commissions. In a statement outlining his 2012 legislative agenda released this week, Haslam expressed his desire to “eliminate duplicative functions and provide more accountability and oversight of these agencies.”