Retired Capitol Hill reporter Tom Humphrey for years wrote a column called “Humphrey on the Hill.” In his stead, Sam Stockard is taking up the mantle with a report called “Stockard on the Stump,” a collection of briefs, anecdotes and quotes from the latest week in the Tennessee General Assembly.
If anyone doubts the FBI started investigating the General Assembly in 2019, a lawmaker tells the Tennessee Lookout this week about being “Mirandized” by agents that year.
The legislator, who described the uncomfortable feeling of being questioned by two federal agents, speculates more than one state lawmaker has been “Mirandized” since federal authorities swarmed the Cordell Hull Building in early January. Agents swooped in on former House Speaker Glen Casada, Rep. Robin Smith of Hixson, Rep. Todd Warner of Chapel Hill, the office of Rep. Kent Calfee, who is not believed to be under investigation, Casada’s former chief of staff, Cade Cothren, and three current staffers who are on leave.
FBI agents wanted to know if Casada tried to bribe lawmakers into voting for Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account bill. Casada famously held the vote board open for nearly 45 minutes to work the chamber for one more legislator to break a tie.
One onlooker who previously held a high-ranking position in the House recently told Tennessee Lookout he believes the FBI investigation really started with a probe of Jeremy Durham, who was bounced from the General Assembly for hitting on women. He was penalized $450,000 by the Registry of Election Finance for improper expenditures before a Nashville judge reduced the penalty to $100,000.
The investigation now appears to focus on campaign finance and whether there was any illegal coordination between the campaign of Warner and a dark-money group that ran attack ads on his opponent, incumbent Rep. Rick Tillis before the 2020 Republican primary. That group could be connected to a mysterious vendor used heavily by House Republicans.
Tillis was a Casada target for using an anonymous Twitter feed to criticize his administration. Casada resigned the speakership after the House Republican Caucus passed a no-confidence vote against him.
Give me back my bullets
“And it said for the security of a free state, and I believe these kinds of laws are what’s causing us to lose our freedom in America, and I certainly do not appreciate our law enforcement wanting to take away our guns, and I think that’s what you’re trying to do. I wish you and the Sheriffs Association would back off on this because you’re impeding on the rights of the citizens, the very ones that you say you’re trying to protect. I’m offended by the fact you’re doing this, and I say that you need to back off and let citizens be citizens and carry the rights we have as Americans. We’re losing ’em every day, and it’s time for us to stand up and take them back.” Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, describing his view of the Second Amendment to Dickson County Sheriff Jeff Bledsoe, vice president of the Tennessee Sheriffs Association, which opposes Gov. Bill Lee’s permit-less carry bill for handguns.
Bledsoe told lawmakers during a hearing this week removing the state’s handgun permit requirement would make it more difficult for law enforcement officers to know who is carrying a weapon, potentially putting them in danger.
The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee took testimony on the legislation until about 7:45 p.m. Wednesday but postponed debate and a vote until next week.
(Incidentally, Sexton defended Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver for attending the Washington, D.C. rally for former President Donald Trump that turned into an insurrection. While there, Weaver tweeted that those attending were “patriots.” She claimed she never saw the people storm the Capitol.)
To micromanage or not to micromanage
Senate Republicans sent a letter to Tennessee’s university presidents this week telling them to set policy prohibiting athletes from protesting during the national anthem. The letter was spurred by the East Tennessee State men’s basketball team kneeling during the anthem, even though the Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team has also knelt during the anthem.
Senators said they aren’t ready to pull funding from universities whose presidents don’t comply, and they said they don’t want to “micromanage.” “We’re leaving it to the university,” said Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kington, who chairs the Senate Republican Caucus.
But when asked whether they’re already “micromanaging,” a spokesman suggested that line of questioning end.
Constitutional amendments move
Three pieces of legislation to add Tennessee’s Right to Work law to the state Constitution, set up a line of succession in case the governor is unable to fulfill his duty and to give the Legislature confirmation over the Supreme Court’s pick for attorney general advanced in the Senate. If approved by two-thirds votes of the House and Senate, they would be placed on the 2022 general election ballot when a majority of voters would have to approve to add them to the Constitution.
Nursing home visitation reopens
“There has been a lot of isolation, a lot of separation for a lot of the elderly in our state, so we’re really glad to be in this spot.” Gov. Bill Lee, announcing the state is lifting visitation restrictions on nursing homes after vaccinating every resident in long-term care facilities.
Protecting the Memphis Sand Aquifer
State Sen. Raumesh Akbari is planning to introduce bills to protect the city’s drinking water supply from the Byhalia Connection Pipeline, a crude oil system set to run about 49 miles from Memphis to Marshall County in Mississippi.
Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, filed Senate Bill 1492, which would enable local officials to require more environmental studies for large utility projects and increase monitoring of the aquifer and water supply.
Senate Bill 1421 would change eminent domain laws used by corporations to acquire private property. State Rep. Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis, is carrying the House version of the bill.
Somebody get me a doctor
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, discussing Sen. Paul Bailey’s return with a broken arm and other injuries after a fall while horseback riding: “He promised me he wouldn’t ride a horse again unless it’s the one out in front of Winn Dixie that cost 25 cents.”
Who took the fifth?
Brown-Forman, the owners of Jack Daniel’s in Lynchburg, sidestepped rules against receptions in the COVID world and put on a virtual reception this week for state lawmakers, inviting them to log on and watch the story of their sipping whiskey. The gift bags they handed out that day, though, were very real, including some minis of new products and a fifth of Jack Old No. 7.
You could almost smell the whiskey flowing down Cordell Hull.
The company played by the rules, of course, obtaining permission from the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance and inviting every lawmaker to the virtual reception, which is required for legitimacy.
Some lawmakers pointed out it was no different than lobbyists holding receptions at night and serving liquor and food. But it still seemed a little odd – to some lawmakers – for the whiskey giant to be giving out bottles of booze.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said he was uncomfortable with “the optics” and gave $50 to Jack Daniel’s after a bag was delivered to his office.
State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, ran me down in the Cordell Hull Building to inform me he declined the gift bag. Apparently, Clemmons, a Nashville attorney, didn’t take the fifth.
Plenty of others did take the fifth, though. It’s a good thing they weren’t in court.
But as Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said, “With the legislation advancing in this place, we may need all the whiskey we can get.”