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Howell Sworn in to Replace Retiring Watson in House District 22

Press release from the Office of the Speaker of the Tennessee House; September 8, 2014:

(NASHVILLE) — Dan Howell, the former Executive Assistant to the Mayor of Bradley County, was officially sworn in today as the new State Representative for House District 22. Last month, the Bradley County Commission voted for Howell to take office on September 1, filling the remainder of Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson’s term as State Representative. Howell won the Republican Primary on August 7 and faces no challenge in the November General Election for a full term.

“I am thankful to the voters for casting their ballots for me on August 7, and I am honored the Commission has seen fit to place their confidence in me to take office early in order to assure a smooth transition. Sheriff Watson was a great legislator and I believe he will also be a great sheriff. He set a high standard and I look forward to continuing his tradition of good representation for the people of District 22,” Howell said.

For the past five years, Howell has served Bradley County as Executive Assistant to the County Mayor. He has also served on the Chamber of Commerce Board, the Cleveland/Bradley Greenway Board, and the county Storm Water Advisory Board, as well as directed the county’s Three Star Program.

“I am sincerely looking forward to working with Dan on the issues that matter most to the people of Bradley, Polk, and Meigs Counties and Tennessee,” said Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville). “With this smooth transition, he can get right to work crafting policies for consideration that will bring jobs and prosperity to this state.”

“Tennesseans have some very clear priorities, especially when it comes to private sector job growth, lower taxes, and better education,” continued House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga). “I am honored to call Dan Howell a colleague and look forward to working with him to see these priorities made into reality.”

“Tennesseans chose to send Representative Howell to Nashville to support policies that will strengthen our economy, ensure our budget remains balanced, and fight government waste,” said House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada (R–Thompson Station). “In his new role as State Representative, I am confident he will accomplish exactly that.”

“Dan Howell is a fellow conservative who will do a great job representing the people of Bradley, Polk, and Meigs Counties. He will be an asset in Nashville and I look forward to working with Representative Howell as Bradley County Sheriff,” said Sheriff Eric Watson.

District 22 covers parts of Bradley County, and all of Polk and Meigs Counties. Representative Dan Howell can be contacted at 615-741-7799, rep.dan.howell@capitol.tn.gov or the address below.

Representative Dan Howell
301 6th Avenue North
Suite 112 War Memorial Building
Nashville, TN 37243

Rep. Watson to Meet with White House Officials to Detail Human Trafficking Challenges in TN

Press release from the Tennessee House Republican Caucus; November 29, 2012: 

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Study after study shows the United States is facing an epidemic of human trafficking. States like Tennessee, which serve as the intersection for numerous interstate highways and have multiple regional airports, are targeted by the perpetrators of the crime. At the invitation of the Office of the Vice President, one legislator is heading to the White House to tell officials what Tennessee is doing to crack down on the criminal activity.

Representative Eric Watson (R—Cleveland), who chaired the House Judiciary Committee in the 107th General Assembly, has been a leading voice when it comes to equipping law enforcement with the resources needed to combat human trafficking. For his part in the White House meeting with top officials, Watson will detail the challenges facing Tennessee as well as how state and local law enforcement agencies have worked together to stop and prevent trafficking cases from occurring.

Human trafficking, which is also referred to as modern day slavery, is defined in federal statutes as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person to perform labor or a commercial sex act through force, fraud, or coercion.”

“Tennessee, in many ways, is a hotspot for this particularly disturbing form of illegal activity—we’ve got to put a stop to that,” remarked Watson. “I’m hopeful this meeting at the White House will serve as a jumping off point for increased cooperation between all levels of law enforcement so we can do just that.”

A 2011 report on trafficking in Tennessee by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) found:

  • Eighty-five percent of Tennessee counties stated that they have investigated at least one human sex trafficking case over the last 24 months.
  • Seventy-two percent of the total counties in the state reported at least one case of minor human sex trafficking.
  • There were 16 entities that reported an excess of 50 cases and eight reported over 100 cases of minor cases of human sex trafficking.

Since that report, the General Assembly passed tough new laws against human trafficking and the TBI has added a training segment on the subject for officers and agents.

Watson added, “I feel like we are making some real progress, but more has to be done. We’re going to learn about the best practices that are being utilized around the nation at this conference and I intend to bring them back to Tennessee.”

Watson is part of a 25-person contingent meeting with officials. The event takes place on Thursday, December 6th at the White House in Washington, D.C.

NFIB Picks Favorite Incumbents to Support In August Primary

Press Release from the National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee Chapter; July 6, 2012: 

NFIB Endorses Candidates in 5 Senate, 20 House Primaries

NASHVILLE, July 6, 2012 – The National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee’s leading small business association, today said it has endorsed candidates in 25 state legislative primary races. The endorsements were made by NFIB/Tennessee SAFE (Save America’s Free Enterprise) Trust, which is comprised exclusively of NFIB members. State primaries are scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 2, with early voting beginning July 13 and ending July 28. NFIB expects to announce general election endorsements later this summer. The general election will be held Nov. 6.

“NFIB supports candidates who understand how important it is to reduce burdens on small business,” said Jim Brown, state director of NFIB/Tennessee. “These candidates have consistently supported less taxation and have worked diligently to improve our unemployment and workers’ comp systems.”

Endorsements by Senate and House Districts (NFIB members bolded)

Senate District, Name

2, Doug Overbey

14, Jim Tracy

18, Ferrell Haile

28, Joey Hensley

32, Mark Norris

House District Name

2, Tony Shipley

5, David Hawk

6, Dale Ford

8, Art Swann

10, Don Miller

11, Jeremy Faison

12, Richard Montgomery

20, Bob Ramsey

22, Eric Watson

24, Kevin Brooks

27, Richard Floyd

31, Jim Cobb

45, Debra Maggart

48, Joe Carr

61, Charles Sargent

66, Joshua Evans

71, Vance Dennis

90, John DeBerry

96, Steve McManus

99, Ron Lollar

NFIB’s endorsement is critical to these campaigns. Small business owners and their employees vote in high numbers and are known for actively recruiting friends, family members and acquaintances to go to the polls. NFIB has pledged it will activate its grassroots network on behalf of these campaigns. NFIB’s political support is based on the candidates’ positions and records on small business issues.

State Gives 7-Day Warning Against Illegal Camping

Press release from the Department of General Services; March 2, 2012: 

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Department of General Services Commissioner Steve Cates today announced that notices are being posted statewide to inform the public about a new law that prohibits camping on state-owned property, except for areas specifically designated by the appropriate department or agency, such as the Department of Environment and Conservation that oversees state parks.

“These notices are designed to inform citizens and visitors to our state about the new law and its impact on state-owned facilities across Tennessee,” Cates said.  “Although the legislation calls for an immediate prohibition of unauthorized camping on state property, we believe a seven day notification period, beginning today, is an appropriate time frame to make sure the word gets out.  After that time, the state will be prepared to enforce the statute.”

The law, HB2638/SB2508 sponsored by Rep. Eric Watson (R-Cleveland) and Sen. Delores Gresham (R-Somerville), makes unauthorized camping on state-owned property a Class A misdemeanor criminal offense, which calls for the maximum sentence of 11 months and 29 days in jail and/or a maximum fine of $2,500.  It also subjects items associated with illegal camping to seizure and forfeiture.

The General Assembly approved the measure by a vote of 67 to 21 in the House of Representatives and 21 to 9 in the Senate.  The governor signed the bill into law today.

Occupiers, Pack Up Those Tents, House Says

House lawmakers OK’d a measure Thursday that would oust tent-living Occupy Nashville protesters from the Capitol Hill grounds.

The bill would prohibit people from pitching tents on state government property where camping is not expressly permitted. For example, the bill could be broadly interpreted to forbid, say, camping outside rest stops along I-40 to lobby for better vending machines, as well as any overnight demonstrations to bring attention to the state flower at this state-run iris garden. Most assuredly, there would be no 24-hour vigils at the cosmetology board for tougher standards for state-licensed manicurists.

The Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012 still has a little ways to go before it lands on the governor’s desk. Gov. Bill Haslam said this week he expects to sign the measure although he plans to exercise little enforcement until his staff irons out policies for using state government space and queries the state’s top lawyer about the next legal move.

“We’ll have to talk with the Attorney General and others to decide once you pass the law exactly what does that give the state the authority to do,” Haslam said.

The bill – HB2638 – bans anyone from camping, including “laying down of bedding for the purpose of sleeping,” on government-owned property not designated for camping, punishable with a fine up to $2,500 and up to 364 days jail time.

The measure easily passed the House, 70-26, with seven Democrats breaking ranks to join the GOP.

The legislation clearly would change the nature of the Occupy Nashville protests that target corporate influence on government.

Republicans have seen the protest as an eyesore. Dozens of tents line the perimeter of the plaza just outside many of their office windows. Haslam ended up on the losing side of a federal injunction last year when a federal judge said the state didn’t have the authority to arrest protesters camping outside the seat of state government.

Democrats argue banning tents on properties like War Memorial Plaza — which the movement claimed as its home — equates to an infringement on free speech rights.

Republicans argue the issue is about protecting taxpayer property.

“When do you have to have a tent to protest?” bill sponsor Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, asked rhetorically on the House floor as Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, argued against the bill.

Towns’ answer: “When it’s cold.”

One Republican suggested lawmakers opposing the camping ban exempt legislative offices in their own districts so protesters would have a place to pitch tents.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, who has hinted an interested in running for Nashville mayor someday, said there are too many rules about when and where to protest, including city rules forbidding Occupy Nashville from camping on Metro property.

“The act of protest itself is kind of rubbing up against the system as-is,” Turner, D-Old Hickory, told reporters. “So if you have to protest, but the government laid out the rules of how you’re supposed to protest, your protest probably wouldn’t be very effective.”

The Senate is set to pick up the bill next Thursday.

Bill to Make Occupy Nashville Decamp Moves Along

Tents and other “living quarters” would not be allowed on public spaces, under a bill advancing at the Capitol aimed at the Occupy Nashville protest – whose members have been camped on War Memorial Plaza for four months.

Members of that group say the bill would limit free speech and criminalize homelessness. On Wednesday it moved out of a subcommittee to the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill, HB2638, aims to prevent “people from living on publicly-owned property not designated for residential use and prohibits people using publicly-owned property from posing a health hazard or threat to the safety and welfare of others.”

“It is not a bill that will make the protest on the plaza end. It is not a bill that denies First Amendment rights to any individual,” said Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, the sponsor of the bill. “What this bill does, though, it restores the entire public’s right to utilize all the public property around the state, not just a single group.”

Occupy Nashville released an open letter to Gov. Bill Haslam, the General Assembly and the Highway Patrol in response to this bill’s filing.

The bill was amended Wednesday morning to provide the state with the right to prevent people from camping on public grounds where camping is not permitted.

The new amendment, which is named the “Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012,” is based on a 1984 federal law, supported by a U.S. Supreme Court decision, that gives the states the right to do this, Watson said.

Additionally, the amendment would change a violation of the no-camping law from a Class C to a Class B misdemeanor, raising the fine from $50 to $500. However, the amendment doesn’t allow for incarceration as a form of punishment.

“This seems to me to be sweeping legislation that could be used to silence dissent and punish our unhoused brothers and sisters for their poverty,” said Bill Howell, a member of Occupy Nashville and the progressive group Tennesseans for Fair Taxation at the subcommittee meeting. “What we see on the plaza every day is the direct result of bad public policy, both state and federal, that has served to further enrich the rich and impoverish the poor.”

Howell said people participating in the round-the-clock protest could catch cold if tents were banned.

The Occupy movement claims the bill is unconstitutional.

“The $500 fine is an infringement of free speech because it would have a negative effect on 24-hour vigils,” said Jane Steinfels Hussain, a group spokeswoman.

Last fall, when the Occupy movement was evicted from Legislative Plaza, Gov. Bill Haslam said that the reasoning behind the new policy was public safety, not to prevent free speech.

A few weeks later Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said that although he believes in freedom of speech, the Occupy movement had overstepped its bounds.

The Occupy Nashville group has said it is opposed to the corrupting influence of corporate money on the political process.

Occupy Nashville Promises Confrontation if State Bans Squatting on Public Property

Press Release from Occupy Nashville, Jan. 31, 2012:

Open Letter from Occupy Nashville: Which Side Are You On?

Dear Governor Bill Haslam, Tennessee General Assembly, and Tennessee Highway Patrol,

As you know, HB 2638/SB 2508 not only stands to criminalize Occupy Nashville, but it has far-reaching ramifications that would further criminalize all of Tennessee’s economically disenfranchised, un-housed citizens. This bill is not only unconstitutional—it is morally unacceptable. If this bill is signed into law, we should warn you that there will be consequences and you will feel the power of the people rising up once again.

If you want to shut Occupy Nashville down and criminalize our un-housed neighbors, then say it. But don’t say you are shutting us down because we aren’t welcoming of other groups. Don’t say we’re a threat to public health. The influence of corporations in our political system is the real threat to public health—the public health of our democracy. And when you stand on the side of corporations, when you stand on the side of the 1%, when you criminalize your fellow citizens, you threaten the public health of our democracy.

You know that Occupy Nashville welcomes all people from all walks of life to exercise their First Amendment rights on the plaza. We seek to create a hospitable environment that makes other groups feel welcome, safe, and empowered. You know that we operate under a Code of Conduct that discourages substance use and inappropriate and violent behavior on Legislative Plaza. You know that we have worked with the Metro Public Health Department in the past to address health concerns. You also know that it has never been possible to control the behavior of everyone who comes onto the plaza, though we take it upon ourselves to clean up after those who leave trash and encourage everyone to follow the Code of Conduct.

Despite knowing these things, you have continued to be hostile toward us. In the early morning hours of October 28th and 29th, you declared war against the rights of your fellow citizens—those whom you claim to represent. Although you evicted Occupy Nashville twice, we immediately regained the plaza—the People’s Plaza. You were overruled and reprimanded for infringing on our First Amendment rights. We have prevailed in court and have held the People’s Plaza since then.

Since October 8, we have accomplished much. We have raised the consciousness of a generation and opened the public’s eyes to a system that perpetuates greed, injustice, inequality, and oppression. The people of Tennessee and the world cried out against your attempts to evict us and we successfully filed an injunction barring your continued harassment. We have remained non-violent, we have launched a successful campaign to halt the foreclosure of our fellow Nashvillians’ homes, we have taken to the streets countless times to protest against corruption and injustice, and we reclaimed an abandoned, derelict public building so that it could once again be used for public good. Three months from our last eviction you are once again attempting to pass a law that is unjust and will bring harm to those you claim to represent.

You know that public property should be used for public good, but HB 2638/SB 2508 makes it clear that you are not concerned about the good of those who protest or are economically disenfranchised. The visibility of un-housed people and the protests of Occupy Nashville in public spaces are evidence that all is not well. Through HB 2638/SB 2508, you are trying to control, constrain, and manipulate public space to conceal the failure and inequity of the system you perpetuate. But the system isn’t working when 25.7% of children in Tennessee live below the poverty level (Census 2010). The system isn’t working when vacant units of housing (24,479 in Davidson County in 2010) vastly outnumber the people who lack affordable housing (approximately 4,000 in Davidson County). You can’t turn a blind eye to these realities. You can’t sweep human suffering under the rug with legislation. You can’t lock people away in jail and declare success. You can’t restrict and over-regulate the use of public property—property which rightfully belongs to the public and should be used for public good.

We stand in solidarity with our un-housed neighbors and other occupiers across the world who have been jailed, pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed, shot with rubber bullets, and beaten by police batons. We have proven that when you pass unjust regulations and use force, not only do we grow, but we get stronger. If you pass this bill to evict Occupy Nashville and criminalize our un-housed friends, then you have chosen to escalate the conversation. If you pass this bill, we will prevail in the courts and on the streets. If you pass this bill, you may expect actions like this:

  1. We will occupy the State Capitol
  2. We will occupy public property (abandoned and in-use)
  3.  We will take back foreclosed homes, and
  4.  We will occupy the restrooms of all Pilot Travel Centers.

We will take these actions not in a spirit of hatred or hostility but in a spirit of love for our fellow citizens and un-housed friends. We hope you will choose to respect Occupy Nashville’s First Amendment rights on Legislative Plaza, the rights of Tennessee’s un-housed citizens, and the use of public property for public good. We stand in solidarity with all occupations from New York to Nigeria, Murfreesboro to Memphis, Oakland to D.C. We stand beside our un-housed sisters and brothers. We stand for the rights of the people. We stand for democracy. Which side are you on?

Sincerely,

Occupy Nashville

Disorder in the Court

As Knox County prosecutors gird themselves for a potential onslaught of appeals in convictions they obtained before a disgraced and now disbarred criminal court judge, political fallout at the state level is just beginning.

State lawmakers who chair the House and Senate judiciary committees say the saga of Judge Richard Baumgartner’s ignominious descent into drug addiction, criminality and professional impropriety will almost certainly strengthen calls for sweeping judicial ethics reform in Tennessee.

“Surely the people that worked around him knew that he was on drugs,” said Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers. “So what’s their obligation to report it? We’ve really got to look at our system and what’s going on.”

Added House Judiciary Chairman Eric Watson, “Something’s going to have to be done.”

On Dec. 1, a judge ordered retrials for all four defendants convicted in the kidnapping, rape and torture slayings of Channon Christian, 21, and Christopher Newsom, 23.

The 2007 crimes were shocking for their extraordinary violence and sexual brutality. The fact that the defendants were black and the victims white sparked racial tensions in the community. Three men and one woman were tried separately before Judge Baumgartner for their roles in the crimes. One of the men convicted in the case was sentenced to die, and the others received prison terms ranging from 53 years to life without parole. A fourth man was convicted in federal court of aiding one of the perpetrators and sentenced to 22 years.

But retrials were ordered for all the state-court convicted defendants after a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe into Judge Baumgartner’s activities revealed that he had, over the course of several years, been illegally buying and abusing prescription painkillers in his chambers. The investigation revealed Judge Baumgartner was likely under the influence of drugs when he presided over the Christian/Newsom trials, and many other cases.

Baumgartner was one of the founders of the Knox County Drug Court program. First appointed to the bench by Gov. Ned McWherter in 1992, Baumgartner presided over the high-profile murder trials of Thomas Dee “Zoo Man” Huskey and Raynella Dossett Leath.

The state’s legal apparatus for detecting and dealing with unethical judges, the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary, took no action against Judge Baumgartner until after he pleaded guilty on March 10 to one count of “official misconduct,” a Class E felony. As part of the plea agreement offered by Al Schmutzer, Jr., a former Cocke County district attorney who served as a special prosecutor, Baumgartner agreed to resign his post as a Knox County Criminal Court judge.

On March 29, Baumgartner was placed on “interim suspension” by the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary.

That the Court of the Judiciary didn’t catch wind earlier of the ongoing judicial meltdown in Tennessee’s third most populace county is further evidence all is not well in the state court system, suggested Beavers. The Court of the Judiciary is scheduled to “sunset” as of July 1, unless the Tennessee General Assembly passes legislation that says otherwise.

In the event that the COJ is disbanded — an increasingly likely outcome, said Beavers — responsibility for investigating and disciplining judges would revert to the Legislature.

Other lawmakers are taking issue with Baumgartner’s ability to keep his taxpayer-funded pension. In spite of laws passed in the wake of the Tennessee Waltz scandal requiring public officials to forfeit that income in the event of an office-related conviction, because Baumgartner was granted judicial diversion there won’t likely be a conviction entered into the record to trigger the pension revocation — provided he stays out of further trouble for the next two years.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally said he is drafting legislation requiring government officials to surrender their pensions even if granted diversion for a felony charge, an issue Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday is “worthy of discussion.”

McNally is also asking U.S. Attorney William C. Killian to investigate whether there are federal charges that could be brought against Baumgartner — which could also lead to him losing his pension. McNally’s also asking the Tennessee State Comptroller to investigate payments the judge authorized to defense attorneys in the Christian/Newsom murder trials.

News outlets in Knoxville reported last week that anywhere between dozens and thousands of cases that went through Judge Baumgartner’s courtroom in the past several years could be subject to review.

Attorney General Robert Cooper confirmed to TNReport that his office is aiding the Knox County District Attorney’s Office to try to get a handle and read on the magnitude of the legal disaster they’re facing.

The Knoxville News Sentinel reported last week that Judge Baumgartner disposed 3,341 cases in the timeframe in which he is suspected to have been “doctor-shopping” and cavorting with known felons, including a drug dealer convicted in his court.

WBIR-TV in Knoxville reported that the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office believes that “less than 40” retrials are likely.

Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood earlier this month ordered the release of 155 pages of TBI interview summaries and transcripts that formed the basis of his decision to order retrials in the Christian/Newsom case.

Those TBI files reveal that many court employees and lawyers, including prosecutors with the District Attorney’s Office and a sitting judge, knew for a long time something was amiss with Judge Baumgartner, but apparently took no steps to have him officially investigated or removed from the bench.

Judge Baumgartner’s administrative assistant, Jennifer Judy, told the TBI it was widely known around the courthouse that Baumgartner was often mentally incapable of presiding over cases.

“Judy stated on some days he was so impaired that his court clerk or the District Attorney’s office would reset matters scheduled for that day,” according to one TBI interview report.

The TBI report further stated:

Judy said sometimes Judge Baumgartner would ‘buck up’ if he thought he was fine and that she had threatened him before that if he went into the courtroom impaired, she was not going in with him and be subjected to the ridicule from others in the court. She stated that she felt that his peers, other lawyers, including the District Attorney’s office, knew what was going on but they did not confront him about his issues because he was ‘the Judge.’

Within the TBI files is also a summary of interviews conducted with Assistant District Attorneys Leland Price and TaKisha Fitzgerald, lead prosecutors in the case against Vanessa Coleman, the female defendant in the Christian/Newsom murders.

Price and Fitzgerald were traveling together back to Knoxville from Nashville after a court proceeding in the spring of 2010 when they observed Judge Baumgartner in a vehicle ahead of them. According to the TBI’s interview with Price:

Price stated that the Judge was weaving all over the road and driving very erratic to the point of almost causing an accident. Price stated they tried to call him on his cell phone but he would not answer. He said they contacted Jennifer Judy who then called [Baumgartner] and asked him to pull over at the next exit. Price said he believed that [Baungartner] did comply with the request, but [Price] and [Assistant DA Fitzgerald] did not stop at the exit.

Fitzgerald’s account of the incident along I-40, which occurred near Cookeville, is consistent with what Price told the TBI. “[Fitzgerald] stated that [Baumgartner] was all over the road and was a danger to other drivers,” according to the TBI report, written by Darren B. DeArmond.

The TBI file indicates Judge Baumgartner later summoned the two Knox County DA’s assistants into his office and admitted they’d witnessed him driving while impaired:

[Price] advised that on Monday, April 12, 2010, [Baumgartner] called him and ADA Fitzgerald into his chambers and discussed the events of the previous Friday. [Baumgartner] told them he was having some back problems and had taken some medication and should not have been driving.

Price also told the TBI that during courtroom preparations for jury selection in the Coleman trial, Judge Baumgartner seemed “not right,” possibly mentally impaired or “under the influence,” according to DeArmond’s report.

“[Price] said the Judge’s speech was slurred and he seemed incoherent at times and was having problems putting sentences together,” wrote DeArmond, who conducted his interview with the prosecutors on Feb. 3.

“Price stated that he was aware of times when trials have been reset in Division I Court when Judge Baumgartner was not fit to be on the bench,” the TBI report states.

Nevertheless, the Coleman case went forward with Judge Baumgartner presiding. Coleman was ultimately convicted of helping facilitate the rape, torture and murder of Channon Christian. In July 2010 she was sentenced to 53 years in prison.

No date has been set for her retrial.

Reached by phone on Tuesday, John Gill, special counsel and chief assistant to Knox County District Attorney Randy Nichols, defended prosecutors’ handling of the Judge Baumgartner affair.

“We were aware that he had some health problems, but not that he was abusing drugs or addicted to drugs at all,” Gill told TNReport.

The TBI began investigating Judge Baumgartner in the fall of 2010, after a Knoxville woman reported to local police that her ex-husband had burglarized her home — and that if law enforcement authorities investigated him they’d find he was dealing drugs to a local judge. The incident was reported to the TBI by Jennifer Welch, also a prosecutor with the Knox County District Attorney’s Office.

Chris Craft, who presides over the Court of the Judiciary, told TNReport that the Judge Baumgartner situation was in no way mishandled by the COJ — and that the case in fact ought to demonstrate how important the COJ is to the justice system in Tennessee.

“As far as what we’re doing, we need to keep doing what we’re doing, and we’re doing a good job,” he said.

Craft said that in the case of Judge Baumgartner, the Court of the Judiciary “did everything they were supposed to do.”

“I can think of absolutely nothing we failed to do in this case,” he said.

When the COJ was made aware of the nature of Judge Baumgartner’s behavior — namely, after Baumgartner accepted the plea bargain last March — it acted, said Craft.

Craft would neither confirm nor deny whether the COJ received any complaints against Baumgartner prior to March 10 because that information would only be made public if the COJ filed charges or issued a public reprimand, which it did not.

Craft noted, though, that he’s heard of no one who has come forward publicly and said they filed a complaint against Baumgartner with the COJ that the COJ failed to investigate.

In a letter dated Dec. 6, Senate Finance Committee Chairman McNally requested the COJ release “copies of any complaints filed against Judge Richard Baumgartner since 2007 related to drug or alcohol abuse.” McNally said Monday he’s yet to receive a response.

Judge Craft added that all lawyers — prosecutors, defense attorneys and other judges alike — have an “absolute duty” under the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Rules of Professional Conduct to report judicial misbehavior or misconduct whenever they suspect or witness it.

“At the Court of the Judiciary, we understand that many attorneys are hesitant to file a written complaint on a judge, so we will take anonymous complaints from attorneys over the phone if we need to in order to get enough information to investigate,” Craft wrote in an email to TNReport. “We can then talk to others who observe the judge and courtroom daily to make sure nothing is happening that is impairing the judge’s performance. There may be an entirely innocent reason the judge is acting differently, such as advancing age, back pain, illness or lack of sleep due to a family illness or other issue, but we still need to know, if it is in fact affecting that judge’s performance.”

Baumgartner could not be reached for comment on this article.

In a story that aired on Knoxville station WBIR-TV back in August, the former judge can be seen addressing members of the Knoxville Metropolitan Drug Commission in a taped video presentation. In it Baumgartner touches on some of the circumstances surrounding his admitted addiction to pain pills.

“I kind of wish that people had been tougher on me and said, ‘What’s going on here?’,” Baumgartner said. “Because I think if more people had done that, I might have gotten the message sooner.”

Andrea Zelinski and Mark Engler contributed to this report.

TNReport.com is a nonprofit news organization supported by generous donors like you. Contributions to TNReport.com are tax deductible!

Rep. Watson Assigned to Criminal Justice Council

Press Release from the Republican caucus of the Tennessee Huse of Representatives, Nov. 3, 2011:

(November 3, 2011, NASHVILLE) – The Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives Beth Harwell (R—Nashville) recently appointed Representative Eric Watson (R—Cleveland) to be a member of the Tennessee Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee.

The purpose of the Council is to identify major issues in the Criminal Justice System that are harming public safety and to recommend changes that will both increase public safety and efficiency.

In her letter making the appointment, Speaker Harwell wrote, “I am confident that you (Rep. Watson) will perform the duties of office with the high standard of professionalism, dedication, and integrity that the citizens of Tennessee deserve and expect of their public servants.”

Rep. Watson remarked, “Public safety is my driving concern as a public servant. This appointment gives me a seat at the table to discuss what is and what isn’t working when it comes to law enforcement issues. Tennesseans expect us to review our laws and make sure our procedures are working so the can rest assured our society is safe and free from criminal activity.”

Rep. Watson’s appointment commences immediately and will run until November 6, 2012. In March of this year, Speaker Harwell also appointed Rep. Watson to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ (NCSL) standing committee on Law and Criminal Justice. Watson serves as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

McNally Pleased with Haslam’s Handling of Amazon Sales Tax Issues

Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, who has worked to require Amazon.com to collect sales taxes on its online sales, said Monday he endorses Gov. Bill Haslam’s efforts to resolve the issue, calling it a potential “win-win” solution for the state.

McNally also said he appreciates efforts in the Haslam administration to set new guidelines on the handling of private letter rulings — or written agreements specific to the taxpayer — which might make the process more transparent yet still protect a taxpayer’s confidentiality.

McNally, chairman of the Senate Finance Ways and Means Committee, noted new clout among members of the Legislature from the Chattanooga area, where two of the three distribution centers in the state announced by Amazon will be located. A third center has been announced for Lebanon in Wilson County.

Haslam says his administration is in negotiations with representatives of Amazon on establishing a long-term relationship on sales tax collections. The governor’s efforts come in the wake of an agreement between his predecessor, Phil Bredesen, and Amazon, where the company was granted permission to operate its facilities in the state without collecting sales taxes. The reason given for the deal was that the creation of hundreds of jobs in Tennessee made up for the tax issue and that without the deal Amazon would go to another state.

Haslam said last week he wants an agreement with Amazon where the company can expand in Tennessee and at the same time come with an understanding on the collection of taxes. Haslam said if such an agreement were reached the public would be able to know about the deal. Much of the arrangement under the Bredesen administration has been secretive.

“To the extent they can work something out that allows them (Amazon) to operate facilities and provide the jobs and then would, in the end, have them collecting and remitting sales tax, that’s a win-win,” McNally said. “I’m pleased with what the governor has said.”

Commissioner of Revenue Richard Roberts said last week he cannot comment on talks with Amazon, even to confirm or deny that negotiations are occurring.

“He can’t really discuss it unless Amazon gives him permission to,” McNally said.

But Haslam has spoken openly about the discussions, expressing his personal desire that Amazon collect the tax. Haslam publicly voiced his support for the original agreement, as have many lawmakers, citing the importance of the state protecting its reputation for keeping its word.

“Whether the governor, in talking to Amazon, says, ‘This is going to be on the record, and our discussions are not protected by confidentiality,’ I don’t know,” McNally said. “There is a statutory provision that protects taxpayer confidentiality for the Department of Revenue officials.”

McNally said his understanding is that the Department of Revenue is working with Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, speaker pro tem of the Senate, and others about how to handle private letter rulings that are key to the confidentiality matter.

An effort to reach Watson on Monday was unsuccessful.

McNally said he believes such an agreement at the department could be possible while still providing some protection to the taxpayer — “whether that’s through redaction, or whether it’s through having the confidentiality provision expire after a certain length of time, or whether that’s through a mechanism where the commissioner of Revenue would say he’s issuing the ruling regarding ‘XYZ’ provision of the revenue rules, and his ruling is such-and-such without mentioning the taxpayer.”

McNally said such an effort at the Department of Revenue is a positive change. He also expressed confidence that a new long-term deal would be spelled out publicly, as Haslam assured.

McNally at one time suggested a two-year “grace period” for requiring Amazon to collect sales tax, but Haslam responded that it would leave uncertainty on the issue.

One of the developments in the Amazon issue has been the recent emergence of power among some lawmakers from the Chattanooga area. Amazon has announced distribution centers in Hamilton County and Bradley County in the southeast corner of the state.

Watson was recently named speaker pro tem in the Senate after Sen. Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, who had had the role, announced her departure to take a job as head of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, was elected House majority leader this year, and Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

“I know there are some very strong advocates, certainly very powerful individuals in that area,” McNally said. “They’ve got some real power in Chattanooga that it hasn’t had in a number of years.

“At the same time, they’re reasonable individuals. They realize you’ve got jobs and capital investment on one side of the ledger sheet, and you’ve got potential erosion of the sales tax base on the other. So, all of our conversations have been cordial, but they’re very strong advocates of their position.”

McNally and Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, chairman of the House Finance Ways and Means Committee, sponsored legislation this year seeking a requirement that Amazon collect the tax. They postponed it.

On Aug. 1, McNally and Sargent requested an opinion from Attorney General Robert Cooper on whether the state may waive the obligation of an out-of-state retailer to collect the sales tax. That followed an earlier request for an opinion from Cooper on whether Amazon had established sufficient retail presence — a legal threshold called nexus — to warrant collection of the tax and whether their legislation requiring it was constitutional. Cooper opined that sufficient nexus was present to warrant the tax collection and that the legislation was constitutionally defensible.

McNally was asked Monday his current opinion on the prospects for his legislation being passed.

“I’d say it’s an uphill battle,” he said.

But he sounded upbeat about Haslam’s recent approach.

“I appreciate the governor trying to work toward an equitable solution for the state, for that region, as far as jobs and capital investment,” he said.

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