Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: Funk will audit the governor’s pandemic spending spree

When Funk pokes his finger in the state’s eye, upset GOP lawmakers play right into his hand

December 10, 2021 5:00 am
Historic Nashville Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Historic Nashville Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Never one to shy away from conflict with the state government, District Attorney General Glenn Funk is taking up the request of a state senator to audit the pandemic spending of Gov. Bill Lee’s administration.

Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, asked Funk this week for an audit and financial review of about $740 million in no-bid, sole-source contracts, some of which were embarrassing to the state. Even Health Department officials have said they had to move too fast to spend federal COVID-19 funds.

Funk spokesman Steve Hayslip said Thursday the district attorney received Campbell’s letter this week and confirmed he will audit the governor’s spending.

“He is deciding what office or agency can best assist the District Attorney’s office in conducting an audit to address Senator Campbell’s concerns. Audit findings will be made public,” Hayslip said in an email.

Campbell’s letter urges Funk to use the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation or any other “appropriate agency” to assist in a full review of state contract activity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

xGlenn Funk, District Attorney, Metro Nashville and Davidson County (Photo: Nashville.gov)
Glenn Funk, District Attorney, Metro Nashville and Davidson County (Photo: Nashville.gov)

Funk, who is seeking another term, faces challenges from former prosecutors Danielle Nellis and Sara Beth Myers. Answering the call could give him a boost in a city that isn’t fond of the state Legislature.

The DA took a political hit when he negotiated a plea deal with former Metro Police Officer Andrew Delke in the killing of Daniel Hambrick, who was shot as he ran dfrom the officer in 2018. Funk won election in 2014 with strongdw1`

 support from the Black community, but Black leaders began protesting his actions after the plea deal.

He’s capable of regaining points in blue Davidson County by thumbing his nose at the Republican-controlled Legislature and governor’s office.

Funk was the clear target of legislation passed in late October enabling the state attorney general to appoint replacements for DAs who publicly state they will not prosecute specific laws. 

Funk this year let it be known he would not spend resources on a new law requiring restaurants and bars to post restroom signs letting customers know transgender people could be using their facilities. The law is tied up in litigation.

The Davidson County DA also has said he would not prosecute people caught with a half-ounce of pot or less, nor would he enforce state laws cutting access for women to abortion procedures or the governor’s executive order against mask mandates at public schools.

Those moves have infuriated Republicans in the Legislature, with several of them calling his decisions unconstitutional.

That might make them look good back home, but in doing so, they make Funk public enemy No. 1 for the General Assembly, which gives him points with Nashville voters. While Funk pokes his finger in the state’s eye, Republican lawmakers are playing right into his hand.

No quarter for unemployed

Nashville attorney Gary Blackburn, who is representing Tennesseans in a lawsuit against the state over Gov. Bill Lee’s move to end federal unemployment benefits in September, says the attorney general’s office declined to discuss a proposed settlement.

In fact, Blackburn says the state’s attorneys refused to even meet to talk about his plan.

Under Blackburn’s proposal, the state would have asked the federal government to pay about 75% of an estimated $800 million it would have sent to the state. As part of the settlement the attorney also would have reduced his fee.

The proposed settlement points out, “Plaintiffs will avoid negative comments. Counsel and certain plaintiffs will be pleased to express publicly their gratitude for Gov. Lee’s wise, compassionate and Christian decision.”

Lee pleased Republicans but outraged Democrats when he made the executive order cutting thousands of people off from funds. He claimed the move was necessary to return people to the workforce and argued that about 67,000 jobs were available statewide if people wanted them. Some corners debunked that claim.

Attorney General Herbert Slatery refused to discuss a settlement proposal by a lawyer for Tennesseans suing the state over Gov. Lee’s preliminary cut off of federal pandemic unemployment benefits. The proposed settlement included the clause, “Counsel and certain plaintiffs will be pleased to express publicly their gratitude for Gov. Lee’s wise, compassionate and Christian decision.”

Blackburn, who is representing seven plaintiffs in the case, contends the governor didn’t have the authority to terminate the unemployment benefits contract with the United States. He also wants the federal government to get involved in the case because the money he’s trying to get for his clients comes from the feds, not the state treasury.

The state argued that the plaintiffs should have filed the complaint before the end of July if they thought it was urgent, according to reports.

The AG’s Office declined comment because the case is ongoing. The state has a pending motion to dismiss the lawsuit, as does the U.S. Secretary of Labor.

Best AG in the nation

Tennessee Attorney Herbert Slatery was honored this week by the National Association of Attorneys General, a nonpartisan group, with the Kelley-Wyman Award, its top recognition for advancing the group’s objectives.

Notably, Slatery led a coalition of state attorneys general in a $26 billion opioid settlement and is leading efforts against tech giants such as Google and Facebook.

Tennessee AG Herbert Slatery, named best in the nation by his peers, also led efforts to kill a vaccine mandate for business and joined a lawsuit to reject President Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential victory.

No doubt, Slatery was busy in 2021 and in previous years, battling with the pharmaceutical industry, as it wormed its way into people’s lives with painkillers.

He also led Tennessee in joining efforts to kill President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for businesses. It has been held up by two federal judges, and the Senate voted this week to overturn it.

And just to prove he’s not a political animal, Slatery joined Tennessee in a Texas lawsuit to reject Biden’s election victory over former President Donald Trump. It failed.

Legal counsel move loosens judicial race

Gov. Lee named Jonathan Skrmetti as his chief legal counsel this week, replacing the departed Lang Wiseman and shaking up the battle for an open Supreme Court seat.

Skrmetti, the state’s chief deputy attorney general, was considered one of the leading contenders for the judgeship, which became available with the untimely death of Justice Cornelia Clark.

Jonathan Skrmetti, chief legal counsel to Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: tn.gov)
Jonathan Skrmetti, chief legal counsel to Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: tn.gov)

A judicial nominating committee interviewed the finalists this week and picked three finalists: Tennessee Associate Solicitor General Sarah Campbell and Tennessee Court of Appeals Judges Kristi Davis and William Neal McBrayer, according to the Associated Press. The governor is expected to pick one.

Besides a long resume of legal work, including partner with Butler Snow LLP in Memphis and assistant U.S. attorney in Memphis, Skrmetti served on the legal advisory board for the conservative Beacon Center, according to the Tennessee Journal, further bolstering the number of Gov. Lee’s top advisers with ties to the Beacon Center.

Skrmetti also led the state’s efforts in its opioid lawsuit against Big Pharma, the TNJ reported.

Maybe he should have received the top AG award.

A nice Christmas present

Gov. Lee granted clemency recently to 17 people across the state, pardoning most of them and commuting sentences to give immediate parole eligibility to others.

The governor spoke with all of those on the receiving end of the pardons afterward, spending time at length on the phone with some of them.

In addition, the Governor’s Office and Department of Correction will introduce a new drug-free school zone review process for offenses committed before Sept. 1, 2020 when a new law took effect reducing the school radius to 500 feet. That law also allowed harsher penalties when children were exposed to illegal drug activity.

The governor plans to expedite review of about 335 people being held for drug-free school zone offenses, considering whether they sold drugs to a minor or were involved in drug-related infractions within the last three years.

School board equity bill

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire is set to file legislation  pushing for pay equity among Tennessee’s school board members.

The Chattanooga Republican says board members statewide are required to have a “wide breadth of knowledge,” in addition to attending meetings and working with the public, yet they often are paid less than county commissioners.

State law requires they be paid at least $3 per meeting, which wouldn’t buy the worst hamburger in the state. Most are paid far more but still come up short of county commissioners. 

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, is questioning Gov. Bill Lee's no-bid contracts. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga goes to bat for beleaguered school board members. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A release from the Senate Republican Caucus points out Hamilton County School Board members are paid $12,365 a year, while county commissioners there make $25,394.

Considering the threats board members faced this year over mask votes and allegations that schools are teaching critical race theory, they probably deserve security details, in addition to extra money. It’s not good to be in a position where some are more equal than others.

Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?

My sister and her Girl Scout friends used to sing this stupid, repetitive song that asked, “Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?” that went on and on and on … 

Well, I have the answer. I stole the blankety-blank cookie from the cookie jar.

In fact, I was tempted to steal the cookies First Lady Maria Lee left for Santa beside one of the trees at the executive residence. 

Besides having several really cool-looking trees at the mansion, which is to be open for tours Dec. 10-19, the first lady – or her designee – left a plate of cookies for the jolly, old elf.

That’s a dangerous thing to do when reporters are roving around the building as we were allowed to do last Monday evening at the annual press corps Christmas gathering. 

I surmised aloud whether the first lady would notice if we took all the cookies left for Santa. But upon further legal advice from my subdued Associated Press colleagues, we decided it wasn’t worth it for stale Oreos, although they’re better when they’ve been left out.

If they’d been homemade chocolate chips with M&Ms, though, you’d probably see me headed for the state pen.

“Father Christmas, give us the (cookies)

Don’t mess around with those silly toys”

 

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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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