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Education Featured

Great Hearts Gearing Up for Legislative Fight

Great Hearts Academies, whose application for a charter school was denied by the Metro Nashville Public Schools board, is in Nashville for the long haul, a spokesman told TNReport this week.

And lobbyists for the Arizona-based nonprofit will by no means be playing hookey from the Tennessee Legislature during the 2013 legislative session.

“The Nashville board’s disregard of the truth and repeated defiance of state law illustrates why an impartial Tennessee charter school authority is needed,” Great Hearts attorney Ross Booher said. “Since the governor and legislature gave all children the freedom to attend public charter schools, the board apparently now fears that many more parents and children will choose public schools that the board does not completely control.”

Booher: “If Tennessee puts in place an impartial state charter authority, Great Hearts would re-apply to that authority.”

The idea of creating a statewide authority that would give the OK to charter schools likely to become the next hot-button education reform issue at the Capitol.

Great Hearts is still hoping to ultimately open five schools in the Metro Nashville area, Booher said.

Booher also weighed in on the Metro school board’s decision to boot the Great Hearts charter application.

“The board has a major conflict of interest. It is desperately trying to stem the tide of public charter schools that it sees as its direct competition when it should be embracing innovation and partnerships that provide children with additional school options,” Booher said. “Allowing parents to freely choose the public school that is best for their individual child is the ultimate in local control.”

The company, headquartered in Phoenix, was mired in controversy during its long-running battle with the Nashville school board as it tried to open a West Nashville charter school.

Critics said that the Great Hearts school would lack diversity and would not provide adequate transportation for students.

“Any suggestion of that is just completely baseless,” Booher said. “It’s not borne out by the facts at all. When you look at the plan that Great Hearts had for Nashville … it exceeded what Metro does for its own students at schools of choice.

Trent Seibert can be reached at Trent@TNReport.com on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

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Improper Release of Health Info Highlighted in Federal Report

The private health information of more than 13,000 Tennessee Medicare recipients was released to the public by a state contractor — the most wide-ranging breach nationally uncovered by federal investigators.

A just-released report, from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General, found 14 breaches of protected health information between 2009 and 2011 by the federal agency that administers Medicare and Medicaid. The largest breach of records took place in Tennessee.

Those are exactly the kind of records that, if in the wrong hands, can lead to medical identity theft, a scam that hurts both those on Medicare and the taxpayer. Scams run the gamut from the simple, when thieves use someone’s medical information to get prescription drugs, to the complex, when sham doctors’ offices use the information to bill the government for quick cash.

“The information obtained can be used to file false claims under Medicare or TennCare,” Yarnell Beatty, the Tennessee Medical Association’s director of legal and government affairs told TNReport. TennCare is the state’s version of Medicaid, the healthcare program for the poor. “Even one breach is cause for concern.”

The report stated that medical identity theft “can lead to erroneous entries in beneficiaries’ medical histories and even to the wrong medical treatment” and “may also lead to significant financial losses for the Medicare Trust Funds and taxpayers.”

Beatty also noted that given the millions — and perhaps billions — of Medicare transactions each year, some breaches are to be expected.

If the breaches are a concern, so was how federal officials’ reacted in wake of those breaches, according to the report. Medicare recipients at risk of having their medical information stolen were notified, but it appears those notifications left much to be desired.

From the report:

The notifications for these breaches often were missing required information. Notably, the notification letters for six of the breaches did not explain how the contractors were investigating the breach, mitigating losses, or protecting against further breaches. … Moreover, notification letters for half the breaches, including the largest breach [in Tennessee], were missing either the date the breach occurred or the date it was discovered.

Many times, the information inadvertently released included beneficiaries’ names, Medicare identification numbers, dates of birth, diagnoses and services received.

The Tennessee breach affected 13,412 beneficiaries. A printing error by a Medicare contractor caused the notices to be sent to incorrect addresses, according to the report.

Most of the breaches, including the one in Tennessee, were accidental, according to the report, but one of the 14 breaches was found to be criminal in nature.

“You can’t totally eliminate human error, although you strive to,” Angie Madden, the director of eHealth Service at the Tennessee Medical Association, said.

But Madden pointed out a silver lining. She said that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services — the federal agency that oversees both those entities and was the subject of the report — “have done a fairly good job of education the public and beneficiaries” when it comes to fraud.

Click here to find out more about Medicare fraud.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Oct. 25 to make clear that the printing error leading to the data breach was made by a Medicare contractor.

Trent Seibert can be reached at Trent@TNReport.com or on Twitter at @trentseibert.

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New TN Vet Appreciation Effort Allows Voting ‘in Honor’ of Military Service

In time for Election Day, the Tennessee Secretary of State has unveiled a program that allows voters to honor current and former members of the military as they cast their ballot.

It’s called the Tennessee Honor Vote program. Those who pledge to vote in the upcoming election can name a member of the military on the Secretary of State’s website alongside their own name and declare that they will be voting in honor of that service member.

“We developed it, set up a website where people can go and log and name the soldier,” Secretary of State Tre Hargett said. “They can put their years of service, what branch they served in, even put a message in, in honor or in memory of that soldier.”

Many have left messages. These can be viewed on the site, allowing Tennesseans to get a glimpse of the sacrifices that veterans have made — and see the pain and patience of those left at home.

For example, the website shows that Pamela Ann Bently, a voter from Greeneville, is honoring Capt. Jackson Dale Blankenship.

She writes:

Jackson was deployed to Afghanistan during the deadliest year of the war 2010,where he was a combat platoon leader. He received an impact Army Achievement medal for his efforts during Operation Hell’s needle in the Surkagen Valley in September 2010. Jackson has received 2 Commendation medals for service, one for Afghanistan and one for Germany. He is currently training, preparing to take Company command. He has also held rank as a battalion staff primary. Jackson risked his life to save 3 wounded soldiers. He dragged them from a tank after an IED bomb went off under them.

Army serviceman Ryan Christopher Smith is being honored by Angela Beverly, of Pleasant View. She tells how difficult being deployed can be on a family.

Has served three tours in the Middle East. Sacrificed family time. 1st tour occurred two weeks after the birth of his 1st child, Emma. He moved to Tennessee from Ohio. His second tour occurred when his daughter had just turned three. His wife, a doctor doing her residency at Vanderbilt, cared for Emma on her own. The closest family was 7 hours away. He was able to return right before Christmas. The last tour is scheduled within the next three weeks. He now has a 7 month old son as well.

And it’s not just veterans from the conflicts in the Middle East. The site shows many honoring veterans from every branch of the service and many who served in peacetime, the Cold War, as well as World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Barbara Johnston Skelton, of Church Hill, wrote that she was casting her ballot in honor of Navy Captain Charles E. Johnston, M.D.:

Served 3 tours in Vietnam as medical officer for a marine unit. He told us that everyone in the unit had 2 Purple Heart citations. They all refused the third because they would be sent home if they took a third. He said they went over as a unit and they were coming home as a unit.

Hargett said he was surprised that the site has become so popular so quickly.

As of Wednesday morning, 2,400 Tennesseans had pledged to cast a vote in honor of a veteran or current member of the armed forces, according to the Tennessee Honor Vote website.

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Senate Aide Fired, Caught Doing Political Work on State Time

An aide to Sen. Ophelia Ford was fired Tuesday in the wake of a TNReport story that showed him apparently conducting political work while collecting his state paycheck.

“As of today, Derek Hummel’s employment with the Tennessee General Assembly has been terminated,” Office of Legislative Administration official Tammy Rather told TNReport via email.

Hummel had been executive secretary for Ford, D-Memphis, since April, drawing a $30,468 annual salary. He’s also been working for the Phillip North campaign, a Democrat locked in a tight race against Republican Steve Dickerson for a Davidson County state Senate seat.

Over the past three months, Hummel had apparently been conducting political activities during state business hours on his state-issued computer, according to phone records, Facebook postings and documents reviewed by TNReport.

Hummel had identified himself as field director for the Phillip North for State Senate campaign. Hummel was paid $625 in September by the North campaign, according to campaign finance filings released last week.

Attempts to reach Ford have been unsuccessful. A call and an email to the Phillip North campaign have now gone unreturned for more than 48 hours.

Hummel abruptly hung up on TNReport on Monday.

TNReport will update this story if we hear back from any of those we have contacted.

According to a state law called the “Little Hatch Act,” state employees are prohibited from “engaging in political activity not directly a part of that person’s employment during any period when the person should be conducting business of the state.” The law mirrors the federal Hatch Act.

Examples that suggest Hummel may have been conducting political activities while collecting a state paycheck include:

+ Under a Tennessee Democratic Party Facebook post, Hummel on July 25 at 10:07 a.m. urged readers to sign a political petition. Records signed by Hummel show he was working for the state that day between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

+ Under an ‘Americans Against the Tea Party’ Facebook post, Hummel on July 26 discussed a Tennessee Democratic Party petition at 11:15 a.m., 11:19 a.m. and 12:51 p.m. Records signed by Hummel show he was working for the state that day, again 8 to 4:30. On one of those posts he made during business hours Hummel mentioned how an intern for the Democratic Party had drafted the petition dictated by him “because, by state law, we can’t meddle in politics during business hours.”

+ During a phone call taken by Hummel on a non-state cell phone — a recording was provided to TNReport from someone who said they made the call on Sept. 24 during work hours — he talked about working throughout the week on ‘get out the vote’ efforts in his role as field director for the North campaign. State records show he was paid by the state for working that day.

+ On a Tennessee Democratic Party Facebook post that links to North’s views on a Nashville school issue, Hummel commented on Sept. 18 at 3:48 p.m. State records show Hummel was paid by the state for working that day.

+ On a ‘North for Senate’ Facebook post on Sept. 21 at 4:21 p.m., Hummel’s cell phone number was posted with a message asking volunteers to call. State records show that Hummel was paid for working that day.

+ On Hummel’s desk and on web browser tabs on his state desktop computer, TNReport last week observed campaign documents connected to the North campaign and campaigning in general. (TNReport did not open any desk drawers or search the computer other than to look at the tabs that were open on the computer screen.)

It is not uncommon for staffers in the Tennessee General Assembly to participate in political work, but it is common practice for those staffers to provide notice to the Senate’s chief of staff or to Legislative Administration officials saying they are taking hours off, days off, or a leave of absence for that political work.

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Ethics Complaint Filed Against DesJarlais, GOP Weighs Call For Resignation

Embattled U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais is facing a possible state inquiry into whether he violated medical ethics based on revelations that DesJarlais, a doctor, may have had a sexual relationship with a patient.

The left-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint with the Tennessee Department of Health Monday.

Read the complaint here.

On the heels of that complaint, the Tennessee Conservative Union said it was in talks with GOP groups to decide whether to call on DesJarlais to resign from Congress.

From the Chattanooga Times Free Press:

The chairman of the Tennessee Conservative Union said Monday he’s talking with other Republican-leaning groups and exploring whether to demand U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., resign from Congress.

The move comes as the 4th Congressional District lawmaker and candidate finds himself under growing fire following revelations that as a physician 12 years ago he pressed a former patient with whom he had been involved sexually to get an abortion. 

Tennessee Conservative Union Chairman Lloyd Daugherty in an interview declined to identify the other organizations with which he has been speaking. He said his goal is building a “coalition” in support of the congressman’s ouster.

On Friday DesJarlais’ opponent in the race to capture Tennessee’s 4th District Congressional seat, Democrat Eric Stewart, held a press conference at Legislative Plaza saying that both Republicans and Democrats should condemn DesJarlais’ actions.

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’Tis the Season: Campaign Time on Taxpayer Dime

A Tennessee Senate staffer appears to have been doing political work while collecting a full-time state paycheck, an apparent violation of state law, public records and documents reviewed by TNReport show.

Derek Hummel has been executive secretary for Sen. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis, since April of this year, drawing a $30,468 annual salary. Over the past three months, he has also been conducting political activities during state business hours on his state-issued computer, according to phone records and Facebook postings.

Hummel has identified himself as field director for the Phillip North for State Senate campaign. Hummel was paid $625 in September by the North campaign, according to campaign finance filings released last week.

When TNReport visited Ford’s office at the Capitol last week to interview Hummel, no one was present, but Hummel’s desk was strewn with what appeared to be campaign material, and political documents were visible on his taxpayer-funded desktop computer.

During an attempt to interview Hummel today, he accused TNReport of violating state law by calling him on his government-office phone.

“You’re an idiot,” Hummel told TNReport. “I’m calling Bill Fletcher,” he added, before abruptly hanging up. Fletcher is a prominent Tennessee Democratic campaign advertising specialist and political strategist.

A call and an email to the Phillip North campaign have gone unreturned. Attempts to leave a message with Sen. Ford at her Memphis office were unsuccessful because her voicemail box was full.

According to a state law call the “Little Hatch Act,” state employees are prohibited from “engaging in political activity not directly a part of that person’s employment during any period when the person should be conducting business of the state.” The law mirrors the federal Hatch Act.

Examples that suggest Hummel may have been conducting political activities while collecting a state paycheck include:

+Under a Tennessee Democratic Party Facebook post, Hummel on July 25 at 10:07 a.m. urged readers to sign a political petition. Records signed by Hummel show he was working for the state that day between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

+Under an ‘Americans Against the Tea Party’ Facebook post, Hummel on July 26 discussed a Tennessee Democratic Party petition at 11:15 a.m., 11:19 a.m. and 12:51 p.m. Records signed by Hummel show he was working for the state that day, again 8 to 4:30. On one of those posts he makes during business hours Hummel mentioned how an intern for the Democratic Party had drafted the petition dictated by him “because, by state law, we can’t meddle in politics during business hours.”

+During a phone call taken by Hummel on a non-state cell phone — a recording was provided to TNReport from someone who said they made the call on Sept. 24 during work hours — he talked about working throughout the week on ‘get out the vote’ efforts in his role as field director for the North campaign. State records show he was paid by the state that day.

+On a Tennessee Democratic Party Facebook post that links to North’s views on a Nashville school issue, Hummel commented on Sept. 18 at 3:48 p.m. State records show Hummel was paid by the state for working that day.

+On a ‘North for Senate’ Facebook post on Sept. 21 at 4:21 p.m., Hummel’s cell phone number is posted with a message asking volunteers to call. State records show that Hummel was paid for working that day.

+On Hummel’s desk and on web browser tabs on his state desktop computer, TNReport last week observed campaign documents connected to the North campaign and campaigning in general. (TNReport did not open any desk drawers or search the computer other than to look at the tabs that were open on the computer screen.)

It is not uncommon for staffers in the Tennessee General Assembly to participate in political work, but it is common practice for those staffers to provide notice to the Senate’s chief of staff or to Legislative Administration officials saying they are taking hours off, days off, or a leave of absence for that political work.

In the case of Hummel, it appears he did no such thing: The Senate “does not have any correspondence from Mr. Derek Hummel concerning leave of absences,” Connie Ridley, director of the Office of Legislative Administration, said via email in response to a records request from TNReport.

A spokesman for the lieutenant governor’s office, to whom all Senate staff officially report, declined comment.

Charges of elected officials and their staff using taxpayer dollars to boost political activities are heard occasionally throughout Tennessee.

For example, earlier this year, a reception sponsored by East Ridge city officials for a congressional candidate drew questions about how local taxpayer money was used.

The reception, for Scottie Mayfield, a Republican running for Tennessee’s 3rd District seat, took place while employees were on the clock, and about $80 in city funds were spent on snacks for the employees, according to the Chattanooga Times Free-Press.

City Manager Tim Gobble insisted that the reception was not meant to be an endorsement and was an attempt to be “hospitable,” but other city leaders have said it was an inappropriate use of city funds, according to the paper’s report.

And last year, Democrats accused Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, of violating the Little Hatch Act, saying it was illegal for Ramsey to use his publicly funded office to promote his “Red Tape” initiative because it is funded by his political action committee, RAAMPAC.

Ramsey denied doing anything wrong, and soon after, Drew Rawlins, the executive director of the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, said he saw no evidence of ethical wrongdoing.

But Rawlins also said his office does not handle alleged Little Hatch Act violations. Because the Little Hatch Act is a criminal statute, that task would fall to Tennessee’s district attorneys, as it did two years ago in Bradley County.

An investigation was launched after Bradley County’s Board of Education chairman and vice chairman sent an e-mail to 800 county school employees endorsing a county mayoral candidate in the Republican Primary, according to the Cleveland Daily Banner.

No charges were filed in that case.

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Turner Hopes Dems Can Capitalize on GOP Rifts

The caucus chairman of the Democrats in Tennessee’s House of Representatives predicts three to six Democratic gains in the House, and perhaps more, if the chips fall their way.

“Any gains we have we will be a victory for us,” Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, told TNReport. “I think we can pick off three to six people within reason, and maybe if things go our way nationally a little better we might even get a little higher than that.”

One of the biggest problems Democrats in Tennessee face is at the top of the ticket: President Obama. Indeed, the Democrats’ historic losses in the legislature came with Obama’s popularity in Tennessee sinking to Mariana Trench-like lows. But Turner said that Obama is more popular now than he was in 2010.

“It’s not going to be as bad as it was,” he said, pointing to Obama making significant gains, particularly in Middle Tennessee.

But if Turner’s party doesn’t catch the breaks it needs, he says that Democrats have some built-in advantages — even against a possible Republican supermajority.

“We have more experienced people,” he said. “We know how to govern.”

Republicans need just two more seats to gain a supermajority, which would be 66 seats out of 99.

If the GOP gains a supermajority, fully half of Tennessee House members will have two years or less experience maneuvering through committees and playing hard-ball politics at Legislative Plaza.

The other key advantage, Turner said, is the unity of the Democratic minority.

“Our people will have 32, 33 people back… hopefully a little higher,” he said. “Our people will be solidly behind each other, where (the Republicans) are somewhat separated. You have the traditional Lamar Alexander, Howard Baker, Beth Harwell, Bill Haslam-type Republicans, then they’ve got the very extremist Republicans out there that seem to be pushing the wagon right now and trying to lead them in a direction to the extreme right.”

That creates a split that his caucus can take advantage of, Turner said, and, because of that, “My 30-some-odd Democratic votes is a pretty large block when it comes time to pass some important bills.”

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Ramsey: Signs Pointing Toward GOP Supermajority in Senate

[youtube height=”HEIGHT” width=”WIDTH”]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDTYwGvWGVE[/youtube]


Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey
says that come Election Day, Republicans will enjoy a supermajority in the Tennessee Senate — meaning that the GOP will not need any Democratic support to pass legislation.

“I do think we’re going to have the supermajority,” Ramsey told TNReport. “There are six seats we’re playing in, and none of us as incumbent Republicans have serious opposition. This is the first time I’ve ever run without an opponent.”

Republicans need to win two more seats to snag the supermajority, or 22 of the 33 seats.

And if money talks, Ramsey may be right. GOP candidates for state Senate have a massive financial lead going into the final days of their campaigns, according to campaign finance reports released by the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.

The reports released this week show Republican Senate candidates with a more than 2-to-1 lead in terms of cash on hand. And when you add up the total amount of money raised in contested races, Republicans have outraised Democrats $1.8 million to $861,000 since Jan. 1, records show.

You can search all of the filings by clicking here.

Perhaps more telling is the amount of money spent in the past two months, which is what the most recent campaign finance reports show.

Of the six key races that Ramsey spoke of, Republicans have spent $384,041 and Democrats have spent $253,451, according to those filings.

That’s money that goes for newspaper and radio ads, campaign workers, mailings, food and gas to fill up the gas tank.

In only one of those races did the Democrat outspend his opponent. That was the race in Senate District 24, a West Tennessee district that spans from Obion County to Benton County.

In that race, Democrat Brad Thompson spent $111,372 over the past two months. His Republican opponent John Stevens spent $62,932 over that same period.

Most of the six races, though, more closely resemble the contest in Senate District 20, a district that surrounds downtown Nashville like a letter “C” spanning from Belle Meade to Goodlettsville. Republican Steve Dickerson plowed $54,941 into the race over the past two months. His opponent, Democrat Phillip North, spent $28,028 over that same period.

“I do think there will be significant gains,” Ramsey said. “Somewhere between two (Senate seats) to five or six.”

This is not the first time that Ramsey has been talking about a possible supermajority. Check out what he told the Nashville Scene and Nooga.com.

Other Senate seats identified as being in play include:

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TVA Ratepayers Make Up Pension Shortfall

The Tennessee Valley Authority is facing a multibillion-dollar pension shortfall, and it appears the federal utility has been scrambling to shore up the losses with ratepayer cash.

From the Chattanooga Times Free Press:

When investment markets tanked in 2008 and TVA’s pension fund took a nearly $2 billion dive, the tab for making sure there was enough money to cover commitments to 24,000 retirees fell to electric ratepayers. 

Fully funded, TVA’s retirement plan should total $11.5 billion.

Instead, it now stands at $7 billion.

TVA has infused it with almost $1.3 billion since 2009 — ratepayer money.

There’s a bigger problem, though, says Justin Owen with the Beacon Center, a Nashville-based free-market think tank: Pension problem are rampant throughout the country, and politicians are moving too slow to apply fixes.

“The (TVA) story is symptomatic of a larger problem,” Owen said. “What it amounts to us political promises. Now we’re seeing that many of those promises… are empty promises.”

Beacon has studied pension problems across the U.S. recently, looking at how pension bailouts across the nation would affect Tennessee taxpayers.

“We have to stop making these promises in the future,” Owen said. “We can’t afford it.”

He said that public entities need to move to retirement plans similar to the 401(k) plans offered in the private sector.