Stockard on the Stump: Comptroller defends invitation to Memphis office

Is Mumpower counting chickens before they hatch?

Tennessee State Capitol. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)
Tennessee State Capitol. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)

Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury Jason Mumpower, still in his first year, is set to celebrate the opening of a new field office in Memphis where investigators are expanding operations to make sure the government is spending money properly.

No doubt, Tennesseans don’t like graft and correction. Well, at least some don’t. 

The perceived problem, though, is that the Comptroller’s invitation for an event at the new office, scheduled for May 17, was sent out before the Legislature approved $450,000 for the Comptroller’s Office, believed to be for running the new division.

Light refreshments are to be served at One Commerce Square, 40 S. Main St.

It is also believed the Comptroller’s Office is targeting former U.S. Attorney Mike Dunavant to run the office. A Trump appointee and former West Tennessee district attorney general, Dunavant stepped down when the Biden Administration took over. He might need a job.

This raised the question for some lawmakers about whether Comptroller Mumpower was counting his chicks before they hatched. Questions were raised on the House floor Thursday.

The Comptroller’s Office, though, says planning for the new Memphis field office began under former “beloved” Comptroller Justin P. Wilson and that it opened March 5 with three full-time investigators. Other desks for the office, which gave the state its first Comptroller location west of Jackson, are available for auditors, property assessment staff and state board of equalization staff when they work in the area.

The Comptroller’s invitation for an event at a new office, scheduled for May 17, was sent out before the Legislature approved $450,000 for the Comptroller’s Office, believed to be for running the new division.

A ribbon cutting is scheduled for May 17, and the Shelby County delegation is invited, along with Memphis and Shelby County officials. It was slated for mid-May when the Legislature is expected to be adjourned.

The budget appropriation, however, had nothing to do with the Memphis field office, according to the Comptroller’s Office. “The comments on the House floor yesterday were not rooted in knowledge or fact,” said spokesman John Dunn.

Dunn did confirm the Comptroller’s Office is talking with Dunavant about joining forces, but his role would not be leading the Memphis office and his potential hiring didn’t depend on the appropriation.

The $450,000 is for adding staff and attorneys to the Comptroller’s Division of Investigations, which has 135 open fraud, waste and abuse investigations and is expecting more with the influx of federal funds, according to Dunn. Of course, that could include Dunavant, and the Comptroller is expecting a workload increase. 

Cities, counties and school districts are slated to receive about $6.6 billion in federal funds during the next year. And Mumpower told officials early in 2021 some local governments could be receiving more money through the American Recovery Act than their tax base generates in a typical year.

Such a deluge creates the potential for illicit or at least bad spending, which the Comptroller’s Office will be auditing.

Meanwhile, Comptroller Emeritus Wilson is working on a 120-day contract for the office, $89,000 this year if he works the entire time. He’s doing whatever Mumpower asks to keep everyone in line.

Ripping the Registry

Still smarting from a Registry of Election judgment, former state Rep. Rick Staples is appealing a $26,640 civil penalty for 80 cases of questionable spending involving about $10,000. 

Former Knoxville representative Rick Staples (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Former Knoxville representative Rick Staples said he is being “tarred and feathered” by the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

When he went before the Registry board last fall, Staples wanted to pay back the money in small amounts. But he says he never got the opportunity.

Staples, a Knoxville Democrat who passed the state’s online gambling legislation, recently referred to the incident as “basically a public lynching.” It was a case in which an African-American man who worked on bipartisan legislation was “tarred and feathered” and treated differently than his peers, he said.

In contrast, former Republican state Sen. Bill Ketron, now the mayor of Rutherford County, got a little better treatment for 474 findings on $300,000 in questionable campaign contributions and expenditures. 

The Registry board voted this April to drop an $80,000 penalty against Ketron for late filings but decided to let him make payments on a new $135,000 penalty and still qualify for re-election next spring even if he owes.

Critics say this is a violation of state law, and based on the words in that law, they are correct. All penalties are to be paid before a candidate can qualify for election. 

Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance Executive Director Bill Young contends an agreement with Ketron and his attorney can be worded in such a way that it abides by state law but still holds him accountable for the penalty. Negotiations are to start soon on Ketron’s payment plan.

Ketron’s political opponents, however, say he could qualify for the election, win it and simply refuse to pay the money because the Registry board won’t have any leverage against him. Such a move would be a gamble, but then Ketron, by letting his daughter handle his campaign accounts for the last few years, is accustomed to living on the edge.

No Frizzell impact

Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance Deputy Director Lance Frizzell contributed $3,000 to Ketron’s mayoral campaign in 2018 when he was working for former Congressman Diane Black.

But Frizzell recused himself from the Ketron case, and others in the office have handled the audit, according to Executive Director Young. Frizzell was chief of staff for former Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.

Personal privacy prevails

The House passed HB159 this week, a measure designed to protect the identity of people who make contributions to nonprofit entities. The Senate is set to consider it Monday.

The bill passed by a typical 66-24 vote, but it didn’t make it through without some rancor. State Rep. Mike Stewart, a Nashville Democrat and attorney, argued that a 501(c)4 group could raise $10 million from private individuals and use the money for electioneering without the public finding out where the money originated.

Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Bill sponsor Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, countered that advocacy groups are required to turn in those numbers to the federal government. He also pointed out the money could be sourced in state investigations.

Groups such as Americans for Prosperity supported the bill, even though it already registers a political action committee.

Unsatisfied, Stewart simply said he didn’t like the bill. “People should be able to know if someone steps into a state and throws their weight around.”

Open enrollment grows

House Education Administration Chairman Mark White passed legislation this week designed to increase opportunities for students to enroll in schools outside their zone.

White, an East Memphis Republican who ferried the governor’s education savings account bill through the House two years ago, is a proponent of parent choice. He got support from the Americans for Prosperity.

“For too long, we’ve forced children and families into a one-size-fits-all system. We thank the Legislature for expanding public school choice and improving transparency for families seeking better options,” said AFP-TN State Director Tori Venable.

The Legislature also put $25 million in the fiscal 2021-22 budget for the ESA program, plus another $4 million annually, just in case the Supreme Court overrules a trial court decision that found those vouchers unconstitutional.

Hope on Death Row

Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis had been working for years to pass legislation enabling Death Row inmates with intellectual disabilities to take their case to court. 

Working on behalf of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, Hardaway hoped to give attorneys for Pervis Payne, a Black man convicted of killing a white woman in Millington in 1987, a chance to prove his IQ is so low he shouldn’t be executed. 

In a Legislature run by Republicans, his bill hit a wall this year, and Hardaway was a little discombobulated over the pushback.

Republican Rep. David Hawk sponsored similar legislation that passed the House and Senate this week setting up a procedure to act retroactively on the Payne case and similar situations in a state court. Hardaway co-sponsored the bill.

Nearly 20 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court found that executing people with intellectual disabilities is unconstitutional. Finally, Tennessee recognized this is cruel and unusual punishment.

Paid at last

The Legislature passed bills his week enabling college athletes to get paid for the use of their name, image and likeness. Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, and Rep. Kevin Vaughan, R-Collierville, sponsored the legislation.

Kelsey and Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, had worked together on similar legislation, and Parkinson had been pushing those types of bills for eight year. Similarly to Hardaway, he seems to have been upended a bit by the Republican supermajority. But he’s fine with it.

“My mantra is: People over politics. Fairness for our athletes is overwhelmingly more important,” Parkinson says.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the first athlete to be paid.

Weed out the wazoo

Legislation decriminalizing the possession of cannabis died in a House committee this week by a 9-8 vote. 

Showing some rather perception hearing skills, Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Michael Curcio kept the bill from going to summer study on a voice vote. It failed anyway but could resurface next week – at least partially – with another bill setting up a medical marijuana operating process and kicking in automatically if the federal government removes pot from the Schedule 1 drug list.

Death of the decriminalization bill was met statewide with an odd sigh. It would have been allowed only for people with debilitating illnesses and would have limited marijuana use to oils, tinctures, pills and suppositories (no burning).

Imagine this scenario: Dude 1: Hey man, I’ve got some killer stuff. Come over, we’ll crank some Led Zeppelin and catch a buzz. Dude 2: I’m on the way.

Dude 2 walks in the door, they crank up Houses of Holy and Dude 1 says: Now bend over. Dude 2: Stop right there!

In other words, smoking weed is out. But taking it up the ying yang is cool? 

With apologies to Meatloaf, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Henry Bonham, this is probably not their idea of a rock concert.