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Education NewsTracker

Financial Disclosure Info Lacking on State Board of Education Members

Two state Board of Education members never filled out conflict-of-interest forms during their tenure, a review by the state comptroller’s office found, despite a board policy that requires disclosure to help guard against ethics lapses and ensure transparency.

In a review of disclosures submitted from 2006 through August 2009, auditors found that two members had not completed forms at all. One served for nine years without ever filling out a disclosure form.

The ethics forms are aimed at revealing whether board members or their families have financial stakes in companies licensed by the board or department.

The findings were detailed in a wide-ranging state audit of the state Board and Department of Education by the comptroller’s office. The audit criticized inspections of pre-K and other child care providers, poor handling of students’ identifying information that allowed some of it to be made public, and the process for verifying information submitted by local school districts.

In reviewing the board’s ethics forms, auditors found one form that was rendered useless because the signature was illegible, and there was no line on the form to print the filer’s name.

Auditors recommended the board require members and staff to complete the ethics forms on an annual basis and keep the forms on file for at least three years. In its response, the board agreed.

Other highlights:

  • In late 2008, a state contractor, Public Consulting Group, posted student data including dates of birth and Social Security numbers to a website that could be accessed via a Google search; in some cases, parents’ information was also made public. The data was removed about three months later, after a Metro Nashville Public Schools employee stumbled on the information. The audit says Public Consulting Group provided identity theft and credit monitoring services to the students and their parents, communicated the issue to the national credit bureaus, and implemented new policies to keep the problem from recurring. When news of the security breach broke in April 2009, a principal for the company expressed regret, telling WSMV Channel 4, “We take full responsibility for this incident, and we formally express our sincere apology to the students and parents of Metro Nashville Public Schools.”
  • Department staff were also faulted for poor control of personal information. Student names and Social Security numbers were included in two PowerPoint presentations available on the department website for about two years. Though one was removed immediately after auditors raised the issue, the second presentation was still available six months later. According to the audit, the department paid for credit monitoring services for the affected students and their families.
  • The department’s process for inspecting child care programs was weak, and recordkeeping was inconsistent, the audit found. Auditors became concerned after spot-checking files for three facilities kept at the central office in Nashville and finding that some inspection reports were missing in all three. They moved on to district offices, where they reviewed files for 110 programs and found inconsistencies in the forms and in the way they were filled out. Also puzzling were 10 annual inspection forms that were dated as completed on a weekend. According to the audit:

“The auditors questioned whether the inspections were as thorough as intended by the legislature. We also questioned certain activities in one field office. We referred our concerns to the appropriate staff at the Department of Education and submitted our work to the State Attorney General’s Office for further review.”

In its response, the department said it had developed new training and switched to an electronic system of inspections.

  • Auditors said the department should create a centralized system for verifying compliance information submitted by local school districts.
  • The board did not submit notices of vacancies to the Secretary of State for any of the seven board vacancies that occurred from 2006 to 2009, hindering the state from announcing open appointments, auditors found.
  • Auditors said the department should develop a formal plan to address teacher shortages. Even though the department responded to the criticism by producing a plan, staff later said that little had been done with it because of lack of funding. The plan apparently became obsolete before it could be used or implemented.
Categories
News Transparency and Elections

Bipartisan Ethics Commission Could Hit Minor, Independent Candidates with Major Fines

Eight candidates for state elected offices will be assessed fines from $50 up to $10,000 Tuesday for failing to report their political conflicts of interest on time.

Many of the reported late filers are little-known candidates running for slots in the state Senate or the House of Representatives, although two are independents running for governor and one is in a tight race fighting over an important swing district.

Among the late filers is Keith Clotfelter, a Democrat looking to snag a vulnerable Republican-held seat in the House of Representatives, District 36. GOP Incumbent Chad Faulkner lost in the Aug. 5 primary.

“I think the people have a lot more issues to worry about than that right there,” said Clotfelter, a contractor who has been involved with manufactured housing sales. He owes the state $75 for submitting his conflict of interest statement to the state Election Commission three days late.

He said a worker on his staff mistakenly filed the information after the state’s deadline, but said the campaign would pay the fine soon.

His race will likely be targeted by Democrats and Republicans alike as both parties try to gain seats in the House. Republicans now have a 50-48 advantage in the chamber, with a lone Independent.

Clotfelter said he doesn’t expect his Republican counterpart, Dennis Powers, to make much of an issue out of late paperwork, adding that voters probably don’t care.

“It’s not as big a concern to them,” he said. “It’s a mistake we made and it’s something we’ll rectify.”

Other candidates could face much harsher fines, according to the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance Executive Director Drew Rawlins.

“It’s up to the commission to determine the amount of the actually civil penalty,” said Rawlins.

Individuals are fined $25 for each day the conflict of interest statement is late, he added, however the board may reduce the fines as they see fit.

Candidates who fail to file that information with the state after 30 days can be assessed up to a $10,000 penalty, he said. However, the board has full discretion to set the fine at a lower amount or dismiss the charges.

Although the Ethics Commission reviews compliance for all political candidates regardless of party, the six-member body does not include Independents.

The commission is made up of three Democrats and three Republicans. The governor, House speaker and lieutenant governor each appoint a member from each party to serve a four-year term which includes hearing and determining ethics violations and fines.

Jay Kalbes, an Independent running for the solid Republican 45th district owes Tennessee as much as $10,000 for submitting his paperwork 56 days late. He is running against Rep. Debra Maggart and Democrat Charles Ihrig in the November election. All three candidates are from Hendersonville.

Priscilla G. Steele and Mitzi Turnage both lost their primary elections. Steele, who wanted to run as a Republican against now-Independent House Speaker Kent Williams in upper East Tennessee, owes up to $10,000 for revealing her conflicts of interest 32 days late.

Turnage lost to Democratic Rep. Joe Towns of Memphis in the primary election but now could owe up to $10,000 for turning in her documents 58 days late.

Other political candidates facing possible fines from the state election commission include Thomas Ken Owens, a Democrat who faces off against sitting Republican state Sen. Rusty Crowe of Johnson City. He owes the state $50 for submitting his paperwork two days late.

Independent gubernatorial candidates Boyce McCall, Sr., and Howard Switzer both owe the state $50 for filing their conflict of interest paperwork day days late.

The state Attorney General’s office would collect on any outstanding or unpaid penalties.

The board will meet for the third time this year on Tuesday and decide whether to reduce fines for any of the candidates. The six-member body will also assess similar penalties for 51 local candidates, five office holders, one lobbyist and seven employers of lobbyists.

Categories
News

Senate Appoints ‘Vivacious Lady’ To Ethics Commission

The newest member of the state’s internal watchdog group says she won’t let partisan politics taint her ability to make fair decisions when weighing in on campaign and lobbyist reporting discrepancies.

Republicans hand-picked Tammy White, a former state government worker, to sit as the party’s Senate representative on the Ethics Commission last week.

Once an East Tennessee regional representative for former Gov. Don Sundquist and a business consultant for the Department of Economic and Community Development, White says she brings diverse experiences and an appreciation for accountability to the table in her new role as a government-employed ethics guru.

She says her experience gives her an edge to figuring out how to make the bureaucratic processes designed to make government more transparent also more efficient.

“You can collect a lot of data, but it’s what you do with the data that makes the most sense and value,” said White, 44, who is now the president and CEO of Leadership Knoxville, an organization that looks to inspire people to better lead their communities. “I think there are things like using more technology, and then reports that can be generated from that technology that can assist on the administrative side of the department.”

The Ethics Commission regulates lobbyist activity and financial disclosure statements from appointed and elected lawmakers.

White is one of six members appointed to the commission which is split evenly to represent both Republicans and Democrats. They set policy, issue opinions and review related complaints.

The members, serving four-year terms, are appointed by leadership in the Senate, House and the governor.

White was one of three people the caucus considered for the position. She replaces Nathaniel Goggins of Chattanooga

Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, called her a “vivacious lady full of energy and character” when introducing her to members of the State an Local Government Committee.

Although her last political work was done on a Republican governor’s watch, White says party biases won’t interfere with her decisions on the commission.

But Sen. Thelma Harper, a Nashville Democrat, said she wanted to make sure anyone taking the spot would be impartial.

“I would hope simply because your politics are different from my politics, I would not want that to get in the way of fairness. That’s the only thing I ask,” said Harper.

“I believe in ethics and transparency in government makes for the best representative government that we could ever have,” she told committee members who voted unanimously for her appointment. “I do believe that we are all human, and can make errors, but I think we can look at that fairly and justly, and I give you my word that that’s exactly what I will do.”

Harper then joked about White slapping candidates with hefty fines, adding, “When you’re female, you have to smile as you turn the knife.”

After working in a variety of government jobs, White says she has an appreciation for transparency in government, holding people accountable and “really trying to find wrong and unethical behavior.”

She maintains that Tennessee, by and large, does a pretty good job at keeping politics clean, and legislative deal-making on the up and up.

“I will do my very best to be impartial when it comes to party politics and to be fair and just,” White told TNReport. “And I think that’s the most that anybody can ask for,” she said.

Categories
Press Releases

Sen. Finney Wants Freeze on Lawmakers’ Per Diem

Press Release from Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, March 4, 2010:

Legislators shouldn’t see rates rise as families sacrifice

NASHVILLE – Sen. Lowe Finney (D-Jackson) is calling for a freeze on lawmakers’ per diem rate until 2014, saying that legislators shouldn’t receive an increase in per diems until Tennessee’s economy fully recovers.

“Tennessee families are struggling to make ends meet, and lawmakers have no business demanding an increase in taxpayer money for personal use,” Finney said.

Finney’s bill (SB3650) would freeze the current per diem rate until 2014, when Tennessee’s economy is expected to return finally to pre-recession levels, according to presentations to lawmakers by University of Tennessee economist Bill Fox.

Currently Tennessee lawmakers are eligible for $185 per day – one of the highest rates in the country – to cover travel and living expenses. The state faces a tough budget year that could include layoffs and cuts to TennCare.

Tennessee lawmaker per diems are increased automatically when the federal government’s per diem increases, meaning state legislators don’t have to vote on the matter. They can, however, put a freeze on the per diem.

Last October the per diem increased from $171. Under Finney’s bill, the freeze would go into effect Nov. 2010 and would expire in Nov. 2014.

“I hope that my colleagues will join me in supporting this freeze. Families across the state are setting priorities every day,” Finney said. “We should do the same.”

Finney plans to introduce his bill next week in the Senate.

Senator Lowe Finney represents Madison, Carroll and Gibson Counties. Contact him at sen.lowe.finney@capitol.tn.gov or (615) 741-1810 or 317 War Memorial Building, Nashville, TN 37243-0027.