Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: Senator predicts Delta variant will spur vaccinations

July 30, 2021 5:01 am
Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)

State Sen. Ferrell Haile, a pharmacist by trade, is not on the fence when it comes to vaccines. He was writing an opinion piece on the importance of vaccinations when other senators found out and wanted to join the push.

Seventeen Republican senators signed the letter and sent it out this week hoping to bolster vaccinations statewide and counter the “narrative” that they’re anti-vaxers, with only 50% of adults taking the shots. 

Haile, who was joined by Dr. Richard Briggs in spearheading the letter, doesn’t want mandates, just to clarify the position of himself and most senators in the wake of an odd meeting of the Joint Government Operations Committee. Lawmakers acted as if they were trying to tamp down efforts by the Health Department to run a mass vaccination of children but came off looking like conspiracy theorists. 

Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

If the Delta variant, which he calls “dangerous,” keeps sweeping the state, Haile says government won’t need to require shots.

“I think that we’re in for it again, and we’ll have folks lined up. You won’t have to mandate. You’ll have folks lined up trying to get vaccines, just like when this vaccine first became available. Folks were lined up by the thousands to get the vaccine,” says Haile, a Gallatin Republican and pharmacist who has worked with the Rotary Club for years to lead polio vaccination drives.

The Government Operations group certainly needed a clarification. About the only thing they made clear was that they were responsible for the sacking of Dr. Michelle Fiscus as chief immunologist of the Department of Health. Of course, they let Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey slide, even though Fiscus followed her orders in pursuing a vaccination campaign. Remember, some wanted to ditch the Health Department and reconstitute the agency in their own image.

Fiscus’ crime was that she wrote a memo to “vaccine partners” such as drugstores explaining the state’s Mature Minor Doctrine, case law stemming from Tennessee Supreme Court decision that enables teens between 14 and 18 to get medical treatment without parents’ permission in rare instances. Fiscus also took the blame for the department’s online vaccine promotions, even though she says they had final approval by the Governor’s Office. 

A week ago, we had one group of lawmakers slamming anyone who thought vaccinations might be good for any eligible person. Now, we have a group of Republican senators saying every eligible person should be vaccinated (No Democrats were allowed to sign on, though it is clear they would support the message, creating an odd partnership given the fact Democrats usually can muster only about six votes on any piece of contentious legislation.)

Dr. Michelle "Shelley" Fiscus, photographed in her home on July 15, 2021. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Dr. Michelle “Shelley” Fiscus, photographed in her home on July 15, 2021. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, led much of the outrage against the Health Department and everyone he claimed was trying to force mass vaccinations on minors without parental consent. He contended his only concern was that minors have parents’ permission to get the shots, though we all know teenagers who have more sense than their parents.

Roberts, one of the 11 whose signature is missing from the Senate letter, sent out a statement this week saying the decision to get a vaccination should be between a person and their doctor, without interference from the government.

“I was elected to be a State Senator, not a doctor. It’s neither my place nor my expertise to evaluate one’s medical history or provide medical advice,” he said in the statement.

If that’s the case, he and about a third of the Legislature should quit trying to pretend they’re doctors, when a lot of them didn’t get out of junior college. 

You couldn’t tell it, either, by his stance discouraging the Health Department from encouraging minors to get shots, with or without parents’ permission. 

And lest we forget, Piercey and Fiscus are doctors.

Others who didn’t sign the letter were: Paul Bailey, R-Cookeville, Mike Bell, R-Riceville, Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, Frank Nicely, R-Strawberry Plains, Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, Steve Southerland, R-Morristown, and John Stevens, R-Huntingdon.

Maybe some didn’t get the message, or they’ve already contracted COVID and have plenty of antibodies.

Along with Haile, signers of this declaration were Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, Majority Leader Jack Johnson of Franklin, Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Yager of Kingston, Richard Briggs of Knoxville, Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, Ed Jackson of Jackson, John Lundberg of Bristol, Becky Massey from Knoxville, Page Walley from Bolivar, Bill Powers of Clarksville, Dawn White of Murfreesboro, Shane Reeves of Murfreesboro, Bo Watson of Hixson, Paul Rose from Covington, and Art Swann of Maryville.

Haile, McNally and Reeves are pharmacists while Briggs is a medical doctor. Oddly enough, so is Hensley, but he’s also guilty of having an affair with his assistant, who is a cousin, and prescribing opioids and other drugs for her and family members. Isn’t that convenient. As a result, his medical license is revoked.

A look at the signatures on this letter might make readers think there’s a split in the Senate Republican Caucus. Not necessarily. 

Rather, some of those in the majority of this majority are simply a tad tired of nonsense emanating from what some describe as the “Trump wing.”

Ripping the Registry

Rutherford County resident Joe Liggett didn’t hold back after the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance declined to widen its probe of former Sen. Bill Ketron’s campaign and PAC accounts, which already turned up 470 findings and some $300,000 in misspent money, of not more than double that amount.

Liggett wanted the Registry board audit to look at 2016 through 2018 because of questions he raised about Ketron’s spending. The Registry voted last Friday to levy a $135,000 civil penalty against Ketron, now the mayor of Rutherford County, and after two years of audits and exhaustive meetings, they were ready to wash their hands of him. 

The big difference between them and Pontius Pilate is he’s not Jesus.

Still, they decided to drop a $10,000 penalty for yet another late filing because of questions about whether they’d told Ketron to wait until after the audits were done. And they wrapped $80,000 in previous penalties against him into the total, pissing off half of Rutherford County who thought he should pay a whole lot more.

“I’m just tremendously disappointed to say the least,” Liggett said a few days after cooling down from the July 23 meeting at the Tennessee Tower. “They had already made up their minds before they ever walked in that room. That was quite obvious how that was going to go down.”

The board gave Liggett the opportunity to speak, but he wasn’t told in advance he would be given the chance to argue his case. He opted out. Ketron’s attorney, Trey Harwell, was glad to get up and talk and quickly persuaded the board to drop the $10,000.

Ketron has agreed to pay the $135,000 in a lump sum rather than break it up into payments, which also brought howls from Rutherford County and questions about whether he could qualify for the 2021 election if he didn’t pay the penalties.

Harwell pleaded with the Registry in April that Ketron was nearly destitute because of legal problems with his daughter, which forced him to sell his family insurance business. But apparently he found a pot of gold at the end of a Rutherford rainbow.

Aside from the Registry board’s own questions about what it did in April and whether it could drop those old penalties against Ketron, it rejected a proposal by board member Tom Lawless to seek an attorney general’s opinion. Nevertheless, a new law took effect July 1 putting the responsibility for collecting penalties into the board’s hands and taking it from the attorney general.

Liggett, meanwhile, still has one more complaint filed with the District Attorney’s Office over Ketron’s mayoral campaign. According to Liggett, Rutherford County District Attorney Jennings Jones forwarded the matter to the District Attorney General Conference and requested a pro tem prosecutor to be assigned to the investigation.

Jones has not returned phone calls. Whether the DA Conference follows through is anybody’s guess.

The Registry board also continued to put the screws to former Rep. Rick Staples, after previously slapping him with a $26,000 penalty for about $11,400 in questionable spending during his last term in office.

Staples self-reported the expenses and was prepared to pay back his account. But despite a strong defense by attorney Isaac Conner last week, the board declined to accept a settlement payment of $6,000. In addition, it refused to give Bill Young, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, permission to negotiate a settlement.

One of these things is not like the other:

Republican Mayor Bill Ketron got one $10,000 penalty dropped by the Registry of Election Finance.  GOP Rep. Glen Casada, former House Speaker, had $90,000 in questionable expenses and got a fine of $10,000. Democratic former representative Rick Staples was slammed with a $26,000 penalty for $11,400 in questionable spending while in office. 

Most of Staples’ questionable expenses were for food and drink, plus a car warranty for the vehicle he used to drive back and forth from Knoxville to Nashville. Expenses for trips and cigars were also noted.

Lawless noted it appeared Staples was living off his campaign account. But so was Rep. Glen Casada, the former House Speaker who had about $90,000 in questionable expenses from his political action committee but got away with a $10,000 penalty he could pay from the PAC.

Staples was loath to talk about the outcome, which remains unsettled, saying he is letting his attorney handle the matter.

Still, he told the Tennessee Lookout this week, “Anybody with a third-grade education can tell there’s something not right with how they’re handling my situation. There’s something amiss.”

Redirecting Baptiste

Davidson County Chancellor Pat Moskal ruled in favor of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services this week in a challenge of its decision to suspend the license of Baptiste Group, which has been running a center to house unaccompanied immigrant minors in Chattanooga.

Moskal determined that her court was the right place to hear the case, despite the state’s contention. But she also decided Baptiste Group needed to take its case to the Department of Children’s Services again, before coming back to her jurisdiction.

DCS also requested that the license remain suspended to protect children and the community, but Moskal determined that would have to be decided later. 

The state suspended services at La Casa de Sidney after a DCS unannounced inspection where a child staying there reported seeing a staff member kiss a teen boy who was no longer staying there. Court filings show two staff members have been dismissed for inappropriate contact with teens.

Gov. Bill Lee had rejected a request by President Joe Biden for Tennessee to accept unaccompanied minors coming across the Mexican border. Critics of the governor’s stance point out the state was taking the teenagers when President Donald Trump was in office and accused him of politicizing the situation.

Others say that’s only natural when you’re running for president. 

 

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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