Monday, September 24, 2007

GOP Leaders Build Private Paradise?

A host of Tennessee lawmakers are being very quiet about the revelation that $900,000 from a specialty license plate has gone to buy land and build a two-story hunting lodge in Cumberland County, all owned by a 'foundation" owned by the plate's creator, Republican H.E. Bittle. Those involved in creating the legislation include current Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, 1st District Congressman David Davis and current Sullivan County Mayor Steve Godsey.

The Knoxville News-Sentinel says the Attorney General is investigating the case. Questions began to arise once some basic facts were reported:

In letters to Comptroller John Morgan and Attorney General Robert Cooper, Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville, cited a story in Sunday’s News Sentinel about the Sportsmen’s Wildlife Foundation, which is led by former Rep. H.E. Bittle, a Republican from Knox County.

In 1999, Bittle was the prime House sponsor of a bill that created the Sportsman specialty license plate and directed revenue from that plate to the Sportsmen’s Wildlife Foundation.

In state records, Bittle is listed as the founder of that organization, and he has used money from the license plate to pay for property in Cumberland County and build a hunting lodge.


"Bittle said the idea is to provide a place where children who take an online hunter-safety course can fulfill the program’s field-day obligation. He also said the property could be used as a camp for disabled children and that he would like to invite hunter-safety instructors to bring children from their classes to the lodge for longer visits.

Odom was a co-sponsor of the bill in 1999, but he said this week that he wasn’t aware Bittle was running the foundation or that the money would be used to buy property and build a lodge."

Notice how Bittle says the property "could" be used. Do policies exist stating what the property and lodge WILL be used for? If you bought one of these specialty plates, can you use the property or lodge?

An editorial from calls the actions 'shameless' and 'self-serving':

"While Bittle was chief House sponsor of this shamelessly self-serving piece of legislation, he had help from other lawmakers. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, carried the bill in the Senate. Other notable local co-sponsors of the House bill included state Rep. Jason Mumpower, R-Bristol; former state representative and current Sullivan County Mayor Steve Godsey, R-Bristol; and former state representative and now U.S. Rep. David Davis, R-Johnson City. They, too, must answer for their role in this sham.

Bittle has spent the past few days rationalizing his behavior. He believes he did nothing wrong.

A Ramsey spokesman offered somewhat conditional support for Bittle – saying the use of the money is proper if the lodge "is within the confines of the legislation." Davis, Mumpower and Godsey have been strangely silent.

The Bittle affair points to a flaw in the system. Neither the state Department of Finance nor the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has oversight of the money generated by the sportsman license plate program. But someone should be watching to make sure the money goes for the purpose outlined in the law. This is a significant omission."

Vague legal definitions in the law, and in legislation, at best serve only to raise the prospect of unethical behavior.

UPDATE: Volunteer Voters has a post and several comments on this topic today.

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