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Press Releases

Kyle Pushes to Apply Open Meetings Act to State Senate

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; January 8, 2012:

Sen. Jim Kyle (D-Memphis) is challenging the growing culture of corruption in the state legislature by pressuring the Republicans who control Nashville to adopt greater transparency rules for the state Senate.

If Republican politicians are going to waste our time on extreme legislation that doesn’t create jobs or draft new handouts for wealthy special interests, it should be done in public.

The full release from SenatorJimKyle.com:

NASHVILLE – State Sen. Jim Kyle pushed for greater transparency in the 108th General Assembly during the first day of session, by moving to apply the Open Meetings Act to the state Senate.

Sen. Kyle’s motion would have amended preliminary Senate rules to apply the act, applying the same standard to Senate caucuses that’s followed by local governments, Senate committees and the Senate itself. Sen. Kyle withdrew his motion when Rules Committee Chairman Mark Norris agreed to take up the issue.

“If Republicans want open government, they can join with us and support this proposal,” Sen. Kyle said. “By amending the rules, their deliberations will be subject to public scrutiny, as should be the standard in state government.”

Under former Lt. Gov. John Wilder, the majority caucus meetings were open to the public, but that has not been the case under Republican control.

“We seven Democratic Senators represent not only our constituents, but the 2.5 million Democrats in Tennessee,” Sen. Kyle said. “Fighting for their values means fighting for open government. It levels the playing field for ideas, so that they are judged on merit, not politics.”

Senator Jim Kyle represents Memphis. Contact him at sen.jim.kyle@capitol.tn.gov or (615) 741-4167 or 309 War Memorial Building, Nashville, TN 37243-0028. Visit his website at http://senatorjimkyle.com.

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Press Releases

State Comptroller Releases UCDD Probe

Press release from the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury; October 15, 2012: 

The Upper Cumberland Development District’s (UCDD) former executive director Wendy Askins called an independent living facility for seniors “one of the sweetest projects in the history of [her] career.” However, only a small handful of seniors lived in the facility after it was completed. And their accommodations were significantly less luxurious than those Askins and her daughter enjoyed after they moved into the publicly-funded facility’s main living quarters.

A report released today by the State Comptroller’s Division of Investigations identified numerous UCDD transactions that did not appear to serve a public or governmental purpose. The report concluded that the volume and type of inappropriate transactions identified indicates that the UCDD board of directors failed to uphold its duty to follow sound business and accounting practices, to ensure that all disbursements were appropriate, and to act in the best interests of the district and its goals.

Development districts are created to promote economic growth and development and to serve those in need within each district’s boundaries. The vast majority of funding for the Upper Cumberland Development District and its programs comes from taxpayer dollars from state and federal government.

The Living the Dream Project was designed and planned by Askins while she served as executive director of the UCDD. The Comptroller’s investigators questioned numerous transactions Askins ordered which did not appear to be in the development district’s best interests. The investigators pursued a trail of improper spending on a project that appeared to primarily benefit Askins and certain members of her family.

Askins personally selected tens of thousands of dollars in upgrades for the main area of the home which she and her daughter occupied by themselves. Askins paid more than $6,000 for steam showers for both her and her daughter’s bathrooms, more than $1,500 for a double-sided fireplace in the home’s main living area, nearly $1,000 for a fireplace in her own master bedroom, and more than $7,000 for decorative fountains. Askins also spent more than $25,000 on a curved staircase for the home which led to her daughter’s upstairs living area.

By last February, the project had a price tag of nearly $1.4 million, the Comptroller’s report revealed.

Among the many unnecessary purchases for the Living the Dream home, Askins and various family members received more than $24,000 in direct personal benefits from transactions she orchestrated with the development district. Askins used nearly $10,000 in district funds to purchase used furniture, televisions and exercise equipment from herself for use in her Living the Dream home and more than $14,000 to purchase other used furniture and items from her immediate family. She also submitted a false reimbursement request and received nearly $3,000 from UCDD for catering expenses related to a political campaign event not associated with the development district. Additionally, Askins reimbursed herself $1,229 for other personal expenses such as fuel for her personal out-of-state travel and her personal credit card fees.

In 2011, Askins spent $2,000 in UCDD funds to purchase a 3-D capable computer and $99 for 3-D glasses, and incurred over $600 in costs for ring-back tones, premium texts and music downloads on her district cell phone, according to investigators.

The Comptroller’s report further details that at its 2010 annual meeting, the UCDD treated board members and approximately 80 other guests to food and entertainment at a local winery. This meeting alone cost the agency more than $6,200 and appear to further no public or governmental purposes.

Investigators attribute the magnitude of such waste and abuse to the fact that Askins and her deputy director had unfettered discretion to spend public funds on a far-too-wide range of items and that board members were not providing adequate oversight to protect the public’s interests.

“Even though the board may not be directly to blame for such rampant misuses of public funds, it was inherent in their fiduciary responsibilities to supervise Wendy Askins, the Living the Dream project, and to ensure that all development district funds were spent entirely for the benefit of those who are served by the district,” said L. Rene Brison, Assistant Director of Investigations for the Comptroller’s office.

“These types of abuses of the public trust are likely to outrage many citizens who live within the Upper Cumberland Development District boundaries – and rightfully so,” Comptroller Justin P. Wilson said. “Every public dollar that’s spent for the personal benefit of a government official is one less dollar that can be spent to benefit the people who need government services. I hope and trust that the Upper Cumberland Development District will put safeguards in place to guard against this type of waste and abuse in the future.”

To view the full report online, go to: http://www.comptroller.tn.gov/repository/ia/20121015UCCDaudit.pdf

To view photos of the contrasting accommodations of the UCDD’s executive director and the senior citizens who lived in the Living the Dream facility, go to: http://www.comptroller.tn.gov/repository/NR/20121015TheLivingTheDreamProject.pdf

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Health Care Liberty and Justice News Transparency and Elections

Lawbreaking Lawmakers Could See Tax-Funded Health Coverage Canceled

The Tennessee House Finance Committee is expected to vote next week on a bill that would prohibit legislators from participating in the state health insurance program if they later commit a felony in their official capacity as an elected official.

A vote on the bill, HB2349/SB2205, sponsored by Savannah Republican Vance Dennis, was delayed Tuesday after questions arose about whether the legislation would be affected by the recently-passed federal health care reform that mandates all individuals have health insurance coverage beginning in 2014.

Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, asked whether the proposal would deny a person health insurance coverage.

Dennis responded by saying, “Those folks would still be eligible under the federal plan to get whatever insurance plans are out there and available under any federal (insurance) plans that are passed and in effect at that time.”

Armstrong said he preferred a bill that would allow a former legislator to have coverage under the state plan if the person paid the entire premium, rather than the state covering a portion of the premium.

He asked if Dennis would be amenable to that idea, but Dennis said he was not.

“(A former legislator) could still wind up receiving a huge amount of taxpayer funded health care,” Dennis said. “The intent is if they have been convicted…they should no longer have privilege of participating on that plan. They should be on the same level in purchasing health care as everybody else in the private sector who has to go out and either has to purchase it on their own or gets it through their employer.”

Armstrong also questioned whether the legislation would affect a former member’s ability to access COBRA programs that cover employees after they leave their jobs.

Dennis said it would not, but the issue led Rep. Kent Coleman, D-Murfreesboro, to ask Dennis to get an Tennessee Attorney General’s opinion to answer the questions, saying he “wondered if there were some inconsistencies with this bill as currently drafted because of the federal law.”

Dennis agreed to ask for an AG’s opinion before a floor vote on the bill, but even if the AG finds no problems with the bill, some members said they would still vote against it.

Rep. Larry Miller, a Memphis Democrat, said he didn’t like the fact the bill only applied to the legislative branch and not to the executive branch, judicial branch, or local officials. “It’s almost like you’re profiling members of the General Assembly,” he said. “The more I’m up here, the more we bring legislation…to almost demean our offices.”

House Speaker Kent Williams agreed. While he acknowledged that some former legislators have been convicted of felonies, he said, “The past is the past, and I think it does give us a black eye here that we have to pass legislation to penalize ourselves,” he said. “It’s like we’re saying we’re going to do something wrong.”

Dennis’ bill is the latest attempt by lawmakers to strip benefits from legislators convicted of felonies since the FBI’s “Tennessee Waltz” sting that resulted in the arrest of five members of the General Assembly on bribery charges in 2005. In recent years, a bill was passed that would prevent such former legislators from collecting their state pensions.

Under Dennis’ legislation, participation in the state health insurance would only be denied to the legislator who commits a felony, not the legislator’s spouse or dependents.

The Senate unanimously passed the companion legislation last year.