Stockard on the Stump: Governor declares he didn’t violate the Little Hatch Act

September 9, 2022 6:02 am
Screengrab of former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Gov. Bill Lee in a video for the "Yes on 1" campaign.

Screengrab of former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Gov. Bill Lee in a video for the “Yes on 1” campaign. Lee is drawing criticism over his Tuesday statement on Amendment 1, the “right to work” amendment.

In his push to embed Tennessee’s right to work law into the state Constitution, Gov. Bill Lee denies he and former Gov. Bill Haslam violated the Little Hatch Act with a video shot at the State Capitol.

AFL-CIO President Billy Dycus says they clearly broke the law, but he’s not planning to request equal time with a big shoot at the Old Supreme Court Chamber.

Asked Thursday to explain how the video shoot is not a Little Hatch Act violation, Lee tells the Tennessee Lookout, “I think it’s appropriate that we do that there and it’s important for Tennesseans to understand that issue.”

But to use state property to push a campaign issue?

“I think it’s a, it’s a legislative initiative. It’s a constitutional issue,” Lee says. 

Yet Lee is chairman of the Yes On 1 drive, and, incidentally, he is running for re-election.

Gov. Bill Lee (Photo: John Partipilo)
Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee Department of Human Resources policy states that the Little Hatch Act prohibits all state employees from, among several other things, using state-owned property for campaign advertising or activities.

Dycus says he thinks it’s a violation.

“There’s no doubt it is. They’re on state-owned property advocating for something that’s political. I’m not a legal expert, but I don’t know how it could not be,” Dycus says. “It’s typical. You’ve got a billionaire and a millionaire, and it’s typical for them that they feel like they’re above the law, and they have a vested interest in seeing that this amendment passes.”

Lee and Haslam have continually said how important they believe this amendment is for business, and they point toward the state’s solid economy as an example for why the amendment is needed. 

The amendment would make it illegal for anyone to be denied employment because of union membership or refusal to join a union. But it’s really an anti-union measure.

The labor union president says the issue is as much about enshrining at-will employment in the Constitution as it is about the right to work law.

Dycus notes that Lee and Haslam don’t talk about Tennessee’s poor track record for minimum wage jobs or safety violations in non-union plants vs. union plants.

“It doesn’t surprise me that they’re willing to do something that would violate a law when they don’t have enough respect for working people to really and truly talk open and honestly about it’s the hard-working people of Tennessee that make this state what it is and not all their government hand-outs,” Dycus adds.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican indicted for allegedly violating federal campaign finance laws, pushed the measure to the November ballot. 

Kelsey, an attorney for a national law firm whose goal is to limit the effectiveness of unions, recently tweeted the Lee/Haslam video to garner

Billy Dycus, president, Tennessee AFL-CIO (Photo: Submitted)
Billy Dycus, president, Tennessee AFL-CIO (Photo: Submitted)

backing for the measure. 

Tennessee has had a right to work law for 60 years, but Lee, Haslam and Kelsey want to kill any chance for outsiders to upend it.

Lee has no problem touting the need to insert the measure into the Constitution, all while playing nice with Ford Motor Co. as it builds Blue Oval City at the state-owned Memphis Regional Megasite and with General Motors as it produces the electric Cadillac Lyriq, which he test-drove this year. GM is a union plant, and Blue Oval is expected to be.

Dycus points out the right to work law applies only to people who work in a union shop with a collective bargaining agreement, which is less than 10% of the workforce in the state. People who aren’t represented by a labor union are at-will employees and can be fired for any reason, except an illegal one, or for no reason without taking on legal liability.

Those two shouldn’t be confused.

While workers in organized plants don’t have to join the union or pay fees, they benefit from the collective bargaining agreements and representation. 

“The term ‘right to work’ is a great term to use if you’re trying to hide behind something, but … it doesn’t apply to anybody unless they have a labor union,” Dycus says.

Voters could consider that before they go blindly to the polls in November.

Towns lands Jack Daniel’s grant

State Rep. Joe Towns has the backing of a big bipartisan group in passing a constitutional amendment designed to remove all vestiges of slavery from the Tennessee Constitution.

Towns, a Memphis Democrat, also has the support of Jack Daniel’s, which he says is donating $50,000 to spread the word about the Vote Yes on 3 campaign as the November election arrives. Brown-Forman Corp. owns the Lynchburg whiskey maker.

Voters will see four questions on the ballot in November, and Towns’ initiative asks for support of a constitutional amendment to remove slavery from the Constitution.

Rep. Joe Towns, Jr., D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Joe Towns, Jr., D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

The current Constitution says, “That slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, are forever prohibited in this State.” 

Under Towns’ proposal, it would say, “That slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited in the State. Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime.”

The second sentence was inserted to make sure the bill would pass the Republican-controlled House. Tennessee doesn’t have chain gangs anymore, even though some would like to see them revived. But some lawmakers feared that inmates would sit on their collective duffs and refuse to do hard labor.

Towns hit a snag and ran out of time when he tried to pass the measure initially but got everything lined up and pushed it through the General Assembly this year when Sen. Raumesh Akbari sponsored the Senate version of the bill. Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris carried the measure when he served in the Senate.

“None of this can be done without support of everybody in the communities. This is the reason we have this bipartisan reach-out to communities,” Towns says.

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, Comptroller Jason Mumpower, Nashville Mayor John Cooper, Ripley Mayor and former House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, Shelby Mayor Harris and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs are just a few of those serving on the Yes on 3 Advisory Board.

Still, Towns says he isn’t as confident as he’d like to be about its passage.

He will be meeting with a coalition of ministers to push the message across the state, and he hopes to hold press conferences with Corker to show the importance of removing legalized “slavery” from the Constitution. Towns contends it never should have been left in the Constitution, under any circumstance, when the 13th Amendment took effect because it’s just plain wrong to brand a person as “less than human.”

Towns became the first Black lawmaker to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. But that’s just a by-product of doing the right thing.

The advisory committee is encouraging voters to click the yes box for question 3 and to cast a vote in the gubernatorial election.

In order to pass, a constitutional amendment must receive more ‘yes’ than ‘no’ votes, and the number of yes votes must be a majority of the total votes in the gubernatorial election. 

To serve time or not

State leaders expressed their shock this week at the death of Memphis resident Eliza Fletcher, who was abducted and killed while running near the University of Memphis.

But the horrible incident elicited quite different statements from Gov. Lee and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally. 

Said McNally, who sponsored a truth-in-sentencing bill that Lee allowed to become law without his signature, “The monster that committed this crime was not unknown to the criminal justice system. He had done this type of thing before and now he has done it again – and worse. It is simply disgraceful that this individual did not serve his full sentence for his previous crime. If he had, Eliza Fletcher would be alive today.”

McNally says the case proves that the truth-in-sentencing act was necessary and long overdue.

In contrast, Lee said on Twitter, “Maria & I are heartbroken by the tragic death of Eliza Fletcher, a dedicated teacher, wife & mother of two. We lift

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally slams opponents of an ethics bill. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally. (Photo: John Partipilo)

the Fletcher family up in prayer during this time of unspeakable grief. I thank law enforcement for their tireless efforts & trust justice will be swift & severe.”

Cleotha Abston Henderson is charged with first-degree murder, premeditated murder and first-degree perpetration of kidnapping. 

He served 20 years of a 24-year sentence after pleading guilty to abducting a Memphis attorney in 2000.

Four other people also were killed this week in Memphis as part of random attacks. Police arrested 19-year-old Ezekiel Kelly, who served only 11 months of a three-year sentence for aggravated assault, according to reports. He was released in March.

Lee said Thursday he feels the “community of Memphis has seen evil” as “innocent lives” were lost to “senseless murders.”

“Those who committed these crimes, these heinous crimes, will be brought to justice and it should be swift and severe,” he says.

Lee commended law enforcement for their work on the spate of murders.

“Memphis is the soul of the state, and it’s hurting right now, but we are committed. We are with that community, and we are committed to making certain that we address the issue of crime,” he said.

He touted $100 million in state spending for a violent crime intervention grant fund, funding for 100 new state troopers, including 20 for Memphis, and a new law enforcement training center.

But the governor butted heads with McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton this year on their truth-in-sentencing, and even after these murders, he refused to bend to their way of thinking. Last spring, they had to fashion a compromise to require those who commit the most violent crimes to serve 100% of their sentences.

Lee continued tiptoeing Thursday around questions about his stance against the truth-in-sentencing bill. The governor only said the state needs to cut crime and stop ex-cons from going back to prison.

“We need to be clearly tough on crime. We cannot be soft on crime,” he says. 

Lee pointed out his criminal justice reform legislation that passed two years ago required supervision for those released from prison. He said that didn’t happen with the man charged with killing Eliza Fletcher.

The governor’s public statements drew scorn this week from Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who noted Lee ran on a platform of criminal justice reform: “That means letting violent criminals out early,” Carlson said. “It would be interesting to read a list of all the people who were let out early thanks to Bill Lee and guilty liberals like him and have them tell us which ones don’t deserve to be in prison.”

Rearranging welfare

The Tennessee Department of Human Services announced plans Thursday to allot $25 million each to seven entities in an effort to reshape the way the state deals with recipients of welfare money or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Those on welfare won’t get more cash under this program, but the seven groups will be focusing on education, training, child care and better parenting. Essentially, it comes down to helping people figure out how to make more money so they won’t need federal welfare.

The groups receiving the grants are Families Matter and University of Memphis in West Tennessee, Family & Children’s Services, Martha O’Bryan Center and Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency in Middle Tennessee and First Tennessee Development District Foundation and United Way of Greater Knoxville in East Tennessee.

“There are fundamental flaws in the social services safety net that have for too long counted the administration of services as a measure of success,” said Human Services Commissioner Clarence Carter. “The pilot projects that we celebrate today could demonstrate viable solutions and promising practices that address the flaws and better position those we collectively serve to thrive rather than survive.”

The three-year pilot project is part of the state’s effort to pare down more than $741 million in reserves the Department of Human Services was sitting on two years ago when it was publicly humiliated for not spending federal money on people.

Even after this pilot, though, the department’s reserve will remain flush with cash because the federal government sends more every year. A family of three receives about $200 a month, hardly enough to join Belle Meade Country Club. Maybe a little boost while they’re trying to work their way into Tennessee’s high-paying jobs would help.

Delay and deny

Cade Cothren and his hair leave the federal courthouse in Nashville following his arraignment on conspiracy charges. (Holly McCall)
Cade Cothren leaves the federal courthouse in Nashville following his arraignment on conspiracy charges. (Holly McCall)

U.S. District Court Judge Eli Richardson approved a request by Cade Cothren’s attorney for a weeklong extension of the deadline to seek a more detailed account of the indictment against him. The Tennessee Journal first reported the request.

Former House Speaker Glen Casada and Cothren, his ex-chief of staff, are accused of bribery, fraud and a host of charges as part of a phony campaign vendor scheme to enrich themselves. Cothren used Casada and former Rep. Robin Smith to steer House members’ taxpayer-funded constituent mailer work to him in return for kickbacks, according to the indictments.

They had to keep the thing secret because Casada got booted from the speakership, mainly because of the dealings of Cothren, whom he fired in 2019 amid a racist and sexist text message scandal.

Trial is set for Oct. 25, which would make for must-see TV during the lull before the November election and legislative session. But does anyone really believe it will take place that soon?

Cothren is already saying the truth will come out. And now his attorney is asking for the first postponement, albeit a short one. Deny and delay, deny and delay.

“The waiting is the hardest part.”


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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 and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.