’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.

Featured NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Ethics Chief Wants Online-Only Courses For Lawmakers

The state’s chief ethics guru wants lawmakers to complete required ethics trainings online instead of listening to him lecture yearly about rules on accepting gifts and reporting donations.

Drew Rawlins says the move would give lawmakers online access to the latest state ethics rules and flexibility to review those at their leisure instead of crowding into one chamber for a refresher course and a packet outlining ethical responsibilities every year.

But some lawmakers say they like the lecture hall setup to satisfy their annual training course requirements, which they fulfilled for 2012 Thursday.

“It’s always good to revisit the core principals in the code. Everybody’s busy,” said Mark Norris, the Senate majority leader. “This wasn’t difficult today to all get together to get the handouts again, to hear the words.”

“That didn’t take long. It didn’t hurt anybody,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Old Hickory. “I think I’d rather do it up here.”

State law says the ethics commission “shall offer an annual current issues course for members of the General Assembly,” but doesn’t specify whether that class can be held online. Rawlins, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, said he’d like to make that change going into 2013, but wasn’t sure whether he’d need the Legislature’s OK.

The law is nuanced, but lawmakers are banned from accepting meals or other gifts worth more than $55 from lobbyists or their employers, such as a private company or union. That figure that goes up annually relative to the consumer price index. Some other meals and gifts are also banned, depending on specific circumstances.

Rawlins’ half-hour presentation before lawmakers — which also satisfied ethics training for lobbyists and employers of lobbyists — covered the state’s ban on receiving gifts of value, due dates for the latest round of campaign disclosures and the 10-day limit lawmakers have to return or pay for a gift before the exchange is considered an ethics law violation.

Each member of the General Assembly attending the joint ethics training in the House of Representatives received a 63-page packet on ethics laws ranging from whether lawmakers can accept gifts from longtime friends who are registered lobbyists to whether it’s OK for lobbyists to pay for lawmakers’ meals.

Ethics bills aren’t high on the Legislature’s agenda this year, and neither is the desire to revisit the duties of the commission — whose records of complaints are kept secret by law, a transparency issue reported on last year by TNReport.

Lawmakers have 25 ethics bills in the queue right now, four of which passed during last year’s legislative session. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey says he doesn’t see lawmakers pushing too hard in the way of new ethics laws this year.

“I haven’t seen anything on that,” he said.