Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Sen. Southerland's Secret Ethics Meeting

Some elected officials in state government still just don't get it. Critical issues of credibility and accountability are left by the wayside, and instead we get legislative passage of a bill demanding public school students say a Tennessee Flag pledge. Minor reforms to influence peddling get lip service and then it's back to business as usual.

Secret meetings and bypassing laws of openness are still in operation in the legislature. The state senator here in the First District - covering Hamblen, Greene, Cocke and part of Unicoi counties - Republican Steve Southerland, was named on a special panel investigating Sen Jerry Cooper, and as noted in today's Tennessean editorial, the action was an insult to meaningful reforms. Also, as Chaplain of the Senate's Republican Caucus, his actions are even more troublesome.

After Operation Tennessee Waltz rocked the state last year, Tennesseans were promised a serious, transparent process for investigating ethical lapses in government.

Despite months of debate and a special legislative session, there is no evidence that the legislature intends to keep that promise.

Consider the case involving Sen. Jerry Cooper, D-Smartt. The 1999 sale of Cooper's sawmill was the focus of charges lodged in July against an Alabama couple who bought the mill and a real estate appraiser involved in the transaction. They were charged with fraud and money laundering, accused of inflating the property's value at the time of the bank loan. The couple pleaded guilty yesterday.

The indictment also says that an unindicted co-conspirator, widely known to be Cooper, "used his political contacts, connections and influence" to help obtain the bank loan.

Last August, the Senate Ethics Committee met privately to consider whether Cooper's involvement in the deal amounted to an ethics violation. Specifically, the committee was looking at whether Cooper unduly used his influence to get a state grant and a federal loan for the property. The panel surfaced and declared it wouldn't pursue an ethics case against Cooper.

Two weeks later, Senate Majority Leader Ron Ramsey, who chairs the Ethics Committee, said the initial probe didn't go deep enough and that an investigation would soon be launched. On Oct. 12, the ethics committee asked two members — Sens. Joe Haynes and Steve Southerland — to interview Bill Baxter, former Economic and Community Development director, about the grant.

In mid-November Baxter told a reporter for this newspaper that he hadn't been contacted by the senators. He also said that when Cooper sought support for the grant, the senator didn't mention his personal involvement, couching the request as being beneficial to the community.

Last week, Southerland and Haynes— who deliberated behind closed doors delivered a letter to Ramsey saying they had found no "probable cause" that Cooper violated ethics rules. Haynes told a reporter that the subcommittee didn't have to meet publicly because it was dealing with an investigation.

The state's public meetings law has exceptions for security and for the proposed impeachment of a public official. There is no exception for investigations. Moreover, the investigation into a possible ethical breach by a lawmaker should top the list of meetings that demand to be open to the public.

Cooper's conduct may or may not constitute a breach of ethics conduct. There is far less doubt, however, about the Senate Ethics Committee's handling of the matter. Its foot-dragging and secret meetings are proof that it has no intention of giving ethics probes involving its own members the serious treatment they deserve."

I agree. And if you are a resident here in the First District, you should contact the Senator and tell him this relentless secrecy is wrong and unethical. You can contact him by email, phone or regular mail via this link.

If we don't demand accountability, it will never occur.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:33 PM

    How do you have an "investigation" without putting people under oath?

    But, hey, maybe Southerland and Haynes want to leave the door open to ask for the same favor later.