Commentary

Editor’s column: GOP legislative leadership should police their own

January 21, 2022 5:57 pm
Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, at right, is under federal indictment. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, at right, is under federal indictment. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Tennessee General Assembly has come a ways since the days of Tommy Burnett. 

Burnett was a Democratic state representative of legendary proportions. An epic schmoozer and confidant to the late Gov. Ned Ray McWherter, Burnett was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1970, rising to become majority leader, and remained popular with his Cumberland Plateau constituents despite going to prison twice while in office. 

In 1984, while serving time for failure to file federal income tax returns, Burnett was reelected. In August 1990, Burnett was convicted of a felony through Operation Rocky Top, an FBI investigation into legislative corruption. He suspended his campaign as state law prohibits felons from running for office. 

Sen. Katrina Robinson isn’t the only lawmaker facing legal issues. Our current crop of lawmakers has racked up a formidable array of legal issues, altercations and investigations. Call ’em all out.

Enter Sen. Katrina Robinson in 2022.

On Thursday, a Senate Ethics Committee wasted no time in voting to oust Robinson, a Memphis Democrat, from the Senate. Robinson was convicted of two counts of felony wire fraud totaling under $3,500 by a federal jury in October. 

I’m not here to argue she shouldn’t be held accountable. A felony is a felony and state law is state law. 

I’m here to argue for greater accountability in the legislature. Why stop at felonies? Our current crop of lawmakers has racked up a formidable roster of legal issues, altercations and violations, from domestic violence to FBI investigations. Let’s review them:

  • Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro: Three women accused Byrd, a former girls’ high school basketball coach, of sexually assaulting them when he coached them. One of the women recorded a conversation with Byrd, which featured him apologizing to her. Although he wasn’t explicit about what he was apologizing for, he has never explicitly denied the allegations. Lt. Gov. Randy McNally called for Byrd’s resignation but Byrd ran for reelection in 2020 and remains in office despite a near-death experience with COVID-19.
    Rep. David Byrd (Photo: John Partipilo)
    Rep. David Byrd (Photo: John Partipilo)

  • Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin: Casada is the target of an FBI investigation that came to light when the feds raided his home and office — along with other lawmakers  — over reports of bribery. This week, Casada, who served the shortest term in Tennessee history as speaker of the House after receiving a 2019 ‘no confidence’ vote from the House Republican Caucus, got a subpoena from the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance as part of another investigation into a PAC targeting a political opponent of Casada’s. Casada will not run for reelection but this week picked up papers to run for Williamson County clerk.
  • Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby: Faison recently achieved notoriety during a high school basketball game when he left the bleachers to argue with a referee. “I was wanting him to fight me,” said Faison. Faison was subsequently ejected from the game after trying to yank the ref’s pants down. 
  • Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald: The Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners found Hensley, a physician, guilty of violating medical ethical standards for prescribing opioids and other drugs to family members, including a cousin who both worked for him and was having an affair with him. When Hensley’s issues first surfaced in 2017, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said, If it were a violation of the Board of Medical Examiners’ ethics, and certainly if it rose to the level of anything more serious, then I think the Senate Ethics Committee could look at it. But if it’s just a simple disciplinary-type issue that is not serious, then I don’t think the Ethics Committee … they probably wouldn’t take it up.” McNally was right: the Senate Ethics Committee has not discussed Hensley’s issues.
  • Rep. David Hawk, R-Greenville: In 2013, Hawk was convicted of reckless endangerment after being arrested the prior year on domestic assault charges. He spent one night in jail, served 150 hours of community service, took anger management classes and paid his ex-wife — the subject of the assault — $1,500 in restitution. 
  • Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown: In late October, Kelsey was indicted on five counts of violating federal campaign finance laws. As was the case with Robinson, investigation into him began in 2016, when he was a sitting senator, unlike Robinson who was elected in 2018. His trial was slated to begin in January, but he successfully appealed to have it delayed until January 2023, giving him the opportunity to run for reelection in November. Kelsey resigned as chair of the Senate Education Committee and was slated to have been removed from the position by the Ethics Committee had he not done so. 
  • Rep. Todd Warner, R-Culleoka: Warner was elected to office in November 2020 and has never served in office without being under FBI investigation. Warner’s home and office were raided as part of the same investigation targeting Casada. The feds’ investigation is believed to be seeking to find out if Warner’s campaign coordinated with a shady PAC created to help Warner beat incumbent GOP representative Rick Tillis.
Rep. Jeremy Faison, E-Cosby. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Jeremy Faison, E-Cosby. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Admittedly, many of these lawmakers haven’t been convicted of breaking laws — yet, at least. But the speed at which the Senate Ethics Committee took action with Robinson, a Black woman who’s a Democrat, far outstripped the foot-dragging that has accompanied the hijinks of white, male, Republican officials. The day after Robinson’s October conviction, McNally called for her resignation, although her legal appeals had not been exhausted — and still have not. 

By all means, hold Robinson accountable. But if Republican leadership truly wishes to look just, they’d summon up the fortitude to publicly take their members to task for disgraceful conduct rather than playing a game of ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.’

Silence speaks volumes. With GOP legislative leaders staying mum on their own members’ foibles, we are left to assume that they care less about justice and more about scoring political points.

 

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Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. She has served as political analyst for WZTV Fox 17 and provided communications consulting for political campaigns at all levels, from city council to presidential. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.

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