Ethics Commission Keeps Complaint Numbers Under Wraps

The Tennessee Ethics Commission, which was created in the wake of a notorious political scandal, has yet to find anyone guilty of an ethics violation.

The commission has considered five complaints and thrown them all out in the five years it has been in existence. Records that would shed light on how many total cases it has received are not open to public inspection, officials said.

The law keeps state taxpayers — who fund the ethics and campaign finance bureau to the tune of $593,000 a year — from being able to independently judge whether the commission is effective at detecting ethical lapses.

The commission was founded in 2006 in response to the “Tennessee Waltz” undercover FBI bribery sting that resulted in the convictions of five lawmakers.

“I hope the reason that there haven’t been any violations found has been because there hasn’t been any violations,” said House Majority Leader Rep. Gerald McCormick who said he remembers when those colleagues were hauled off in handcuffs.

But short of a criminal investigation that reveals the commission looked the other way on a serious ethics complaint, McCormick said he doesn’t see a need to change the way the group works.

In addition to ethics complaints, the commission is tasked with publicly assessing civil penalties for political candidates and public officials who fail to reveal their conflicts of interest on time, and punishing lobbyists who misreport their activity on the Hill. Records of those violations are public — which means the public knows when a lawmaker is a few days late filing a form but is kept in the dark if the commission is looking into an allegation of bribery or contract steering, for example.

Those more serious cases are only disclosed when the agency reviews it in a public hearing, after handing it off to another agency or two months after the commission discards the case.

Of the five closed cases that are public record, three involved allegations that local officials omitted details of where their income came from and two alleged that lobbyists were pushing legislation on lawmakers without being registered.

Tennessee is one of four states — along with Delaware, Illinois and Utah — that does not allow commissions to investigate complaints, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The attorney general does the heavy lifting in Tennessee and forwards its results to the commission so it may determine whether to pursue the case in a full, public hearing.

Unlike at least 30 other states, Tennessee’s commission cannot prosecute ethics-law violations, according to NCSL, which does not track how actively ethics commissions are finding violations.  The commission instead can forward serious cases to agencies that do prosecute, such as the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and levy fines.

The leading Democrat in the Senate says the commission should focus less on campaign finance and more on weightier ethics issues.

“When the Ethics Commission was created, there was an anticipation that there would be more visible activity,” Sen. Jim Kyle, of Memphis.

Jackson Mayor Charles Farmer quit the group in September, saying he was “increasingly doubtful that the Tennessee Ethics Commission can make a meaningful difference in whether the work of government is conducted ethically.”

Kyle, the Democratic minority leader in the Tennessee Senate, said he finds it “very troubling” that someone would “(resign) from the commission saying they’re not doing much of anything.”

Dick Williams, chairman of Tennessee Common Cause, said he believes the commission should be taking more initiative, going “beyond just officials checking the boxes and checking the time” on income and lobbyist disclosures.

“I think it’d be good if they were able to get into deeper issues,” said Williams, whose group describes itself as a “non-profit, non-partisan citizens’ lobby organization.”

“Obviously, bribery or things like that are either federal or state criminal offenses and doesn’t need to be (investigated by) the same body,” he said. “Somehow, I think we need to open up the complaint procedure a little bit.”

The Ethics Commission this week denied a public records request from TNReport seeking the number of complaints the body has received and investigated.

“We can’t verify a complaint has even been filed,” said Drew Rawlins, bureau executive director who also oversees the Registry of Election Finance. He said releasing the information would allow people to deduce when a new case has been filed and who it may be against.

His office pointed to Section 3-6-202(a)(1) of Tennessee state code, which says the commission members and staff “shall preserve the confidentiality of all commission proceedings, including records relating to a preliminary investigation.” The Office of Open Records Counsel, which falls under the state comptroller, agreed with the records denial.

All complaints filed with the commission that are immediately thrown out are closed to public inspection, Rebecca Bradley, an ethics specialist at the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, said.

The records only become public if the alleged violator requests the documents be open or if the commission believes the allegation has probable cause, even if the commission ultimately scraps the investigation, the law says.

But Frank Gibson, who directs the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said a simple tally of how many cases had been investigated “should not be confidential.”

The commission has only met twice in the last year after Gov. Bill Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell failed to replace four of the six members whose terms had expired. The commission, with mostly new members, is meeting regularly now. Those meetings are closed when the commission takes up ethics complaints.

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