Stockard on the Stump: Closing records – isn’t that convenient

April 28, 2023 6:00 am
The Tennessee State Capitol with locked gates. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Tennessee State Capitol with locked gates. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee’s chief open records advocate is questioning moves to keep documents secret in two high-profile cases roiling Tennessee.

Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, contends Metro Police is off the mark in claiming the writings of Covenant School shooter Audrey Hale are exempt from the Public Records Act under Rule 16 of the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure, because they remain under investigation. That information comes from a letter to Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who filed a public records request with police.

“If there ain’t no criminal proceeding or a contemplated criminal proceeding or a possible criminal proceeding, then there ain’t no exemption,” Fisher says.

That is, unless police are considering charging someone else, since Hale is dead. The police officers who shot the shooter are considered heroes, yet a month after the deadly day, police are keeping the writings under wraps, using the tired, old argument that the investigation continues, allowing rumors and conspiracy theories to run rampant.

Public pressure coupled with a lawsuit could lead to release of the information, Fisher adds. Such a move could put an end to lawmakers calling for the documents to be released in advance of a special session on gun-related laws in Tennessee. 

Fisher also casts doubt on the Legislature’s refusal to release some information connected to an investigation of Rep. Scotty Campbell, who resigned last week amid a report he sexually harassed a 19-year-old intern. An ethics subcommittee determined Campbell violated the workplace discrimination and harassment policy.

Transparency is bandied about ad nauseam in the Legislature when it suits lawmakers’ purposes, not when it involves critical information. At issue is whether other lawmakers have gotten away with sexual harassment, and if the state paid to cover it up, as it did in a recent case in which state funds were used to  relocate a teenage intern who alleged former Rep. Scotty Campbell  grabbed her by the throat at one point.

But the Office of Legislative Administration is refusing to release the complaint and other documents about the Campbell case, including generic details following two requests by the Tennessee Lookout.

“Due to the confidentiality clause of our General Assembly Policy on Workplace Discrimination and Harassment, no information concerning a complaint will be released to anyone not directly involved in an investigation, a lawsuit or the implementation of corrective action,” Director Connie Ridley says.

The statement came in response to questions about who gave final approval for expenses related to relocating, housing and moving the intern who made the allegations against Campbell, where the funding came from, how much was spent, the number of sexual harassment complaints filed over the last three years in the Legislature and whether any were against other lawmakers.

Lawmakers argue that any documents related to sexual harassment complaints must be kept secret, as was the subcommittee’s investigation, to protect the identity of the victim. 

House Majority Leader William Lamberth, who helped write the rules, says changes had to be made after a 2016 report on the inappropriate activity of former Rep. Jeremy Durham wound up identifying nearly every woman he approached. (Good gosh, has it been seven years already?)

But reporters usually go overboard in making sure they don’t give away the names of the victims. And who cares anyway?

The most important thing in this situation is whether other lawmakers have gotten away with sexual harassment and how much it cost the state to cover them up, in this case by relocating the teenage intern who alleged that Campbell grabbed her by the throat at one point. Should that be confidential? No, because it could be criminal conduct, if true.

Rep. Scotty Campbell, R-Mountain City (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Former Rep. Scotty Campbell, R-Mountain City (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

And every penny the state spends should be public information, not hidden in some account because it’s embarrassing to the House Republican Caucus.

Transparency is bandied about ad nauseam in the Legislature when it suits lawmakers’ purposes, not when it involves critical information.

Records related to disciplinary proceedings could be closed, Fisher says. But the argument on administrative proceedings “holds less water,” she adds.

Specifically, the payout to move the intern shouldn’t be exempt from the Public Records Act.

While the director takes the stance that the media will get nothing (and like it), the matter “may be a more nuanced matter of law,” Fisher says.

The policy and the decision should be challenged.

Just another manic lawsuit

The U.S. Department of Justice filed suit this week against Tennessee to block a transgender youth health-care law from taking effect, claiming it violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

The filing, which asks the court to issue an immediate order against the law, contends Senate Bill 1’s “blanket ban” treats transgender minors differently than others seeking similar treatment options recommended by major medical associations, thus discriminating against them.

“No person should be denied access to necessary medical care just because of their transgender status,” says Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson of Franklin thought the matter was so important, though, he made it the first bill filed in the 113th General Assembly. Johnson made the point in a Capitol press conference attended by none other than the Proud Boys, beacons of diverse thought. 

Gov. Bill Lee called a federal lawsuit to overturn Tennessee’s ban on transgender health-care “federal overreach at its worst,” neglecting to mention he is taking control of several Metro Nashville agencies.

Johnson also carried the bill prohibiting risque drag shows from being held in public places or before the eyes of children. 

That law was blocked in March by U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker of Memphis. (Does this mean we’ll see Gov. Lee dress like a girl again? Hope not.) U.S. District Judge Eli Richardson of Nashville will take the new case. Both are Trump appointees, the Tennessee Journal reports.

“Tennessee is committed to protecting children from permanent, life-altering decisions,” Lee says of the transgender health-care law, calling the challenge “federal overreach at its worst” and saying he will work with Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti to fight it.

This could be a landmark case of the pot calling the kettle black as Lee prepares to give the Legislature and the governor’s office control over Metro Nashville government with a series of bills passed this year in retaliation for the council’s refusal to go after the 2024 Republican National Convention.

(Incidentally, the law cutting the Metro Council in half has already been found unconstitutional. I believe that puts two in the early loss column, and more could follow.)

Apparently, the attorney general will take the case at the governor’s request, instead of absconding as he did in a lawsuit over the state’s permit-less carry law when he reached an agreement with a California gun-rights group to drop the state’s carry age to 18 – all without one vote by the Legislature.

House Republicans are calling the federal legal challenge “another attempt by the left to destroy our country and further their child mutilating radical agenda.”

Taking the L: Two bills sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson of Franklin are under legal fire. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Taking the L: Two bills sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson of Franklin are under legal fire. (Photo: John Partipilo)

After all, every liberal-leaning parent wakes up in the morning wondering how they can encourage their children to make a sex change.

Skrmetti issued a statement Wednesday night saying, “The federal government has joined the ACLU and an elite New York law firm in attacking a bipartisan law that protects children from irreversible harm. I welcome the opportunity to litigate these issues and vigorously defend Tennessee’s law.”

The AG’s statement brought this barb from Sen. London Lamar of Memphis, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, “I thought the AG office isn’t suppose[d] to be political!! That’s mainly why our state has so many lawsuits now. Instead of protecting our state from lawsuits, the AG office is acting like the legislative branch.”

Truth be told, the AG’s office has joined just about every right-wing cause known to man – and some unknown – while capitulating to a far-right gun group instead of backing up the governor’s desire to keep the gun-carry law at age 21.

And these are just two of the culture war bills passed by the Legislature this year – causing one Democratic lawmaker to question Republicans’ obsession with LGBTQ bills and point out three of them (at least) continue to hide in the closet.

Darn those crying babies

Not too long ago, facing the thought of becoming a felon and losing a number of rights, former state Sen. Brian Kelsey reneged on a guilty plea and filed a motion to dismiss his federal campaign finance case in federal court.

Kelsey famously claimed that his crying twin babies and dealing with his father’s death rendered him unable to make the right decision when he entered the plea before Judge Waverly Crenshaw. Or, maybe he didn’t anticipate having his credit card canceled and losing his state pension, some of the fallout from becoming a felon.

Granted, coping with the death of a parent is about as tough as it gets. But whining babies? Come on, man. Suck it up.

Anyway, the feds fairly scoffed at Kelsey’s new case. You might recall, he had three of the best attorneys in Tennessee representing him when he admitted to leading the scheme to funnel tens of thousands from his state account through a couple of political action committees to the American Conservative Union, which bought radio/digital ads backing his failed 2016 congressional campaign. All this for a loss.

Taking another L: Former Sen. Brian Kelsey's bid to have his guilty plea reversed in a federal campaign finance scheme. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Taking another L: Former Sen. Brian Kelsey’s bid to have his guilty plea reversed in a federal campaign finance scheme. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Besides pointing out Kelsey, a Germantown Republican, “pleaded guilty knowingly and intelligently and has failed to demonstrate any fair and just reason for withdrawal,” the feds mocked Kelsey’s claim that he didn’t understand the criminal justice system, noting as a member of the Legislature from 2004 through November 2022, he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and sponsored hundreds of bills, many dealing with “criminal process and collateral consequences for criminal convictions.” Kelsey was an attorney by trade before his law license was suspended, having graduated from Georgetown University’s law school. He was working for a national firm that challenged union activity and even represented some of the people involved in supporting the state’s private school voucher program.

Prosecutors also argue that Kelsey and his attorneys had been negotiating a potential plea since May 2021, including a “reverse proffer session” in which the feds spelled out Kelsey’s involvement in the scheme. 

In September 2021, Kelsey turned down the offer to plead to a one-count conspiracy charge because of his fear that a felony conviction “will mean the loss of his livelihood and risk [of] significant incarceration.”

This is what happens with tumbling dice.

When a federal grand jury returned a five-count indictment against Kelsey, he let go of his attorneys and hired a legal dream team of Paul Bruno, David Rivera and Jerry Martin, both former U.S. attorneys, who represented him through his guilty plea. He was prepared to go to trial but gave it up shortly after Josh Smith, owner of The Standard, pleaded guilty in the case and offered to cooperate.

The day he entered his guilty plea to two counts in November 2022, Kelsey affirmed he “had extensive discussions with [his] counsel about each one of” the offenses and had no questions, according to the feds’ filing.

The judge told Kelsey his “plea is forever” and that he “can’t come back tomorrow or next week or next year or any time and decide I think I want a trial; I think my lawyers can do this, that or the other.” In affirming that was what he wanted to do, Kelsey also gave up his right to appeal, something he didn’t want to do at first.

He also confirmed he read “each and every word” of the facts supporting his guilty pleas and signed off on every page to show it was “true and correct.”

Kelsey also told the judge he wasn’t under the influence of drugs or alcohol – maybe he should have been – and that he made the “final decision” to plead guilty because he “came to the firm and definite opinion that the best thing for Brian Kelsey was to enter a plea.”

In rebuking his latest request, prosecutors say Kelsey “identifies no case in which a court has permitted a defendant so sophisticated to withdraw a valid plea so late with so little justification.”

Incidentally, Kelsey’s wife, Amanda Bunning, worked for the American Conservative Union before they got married and played a role in the scheme but was not indicted.

And one more thing, Bruno, Martin and Rivera remain on stand-by for sentencing, if the court ever gets done with his delay tactics.

(WRITER’S NOTE: This portion should have been included in last week’s edition, but the Legislature wore down the writer – to a Stump.)

Senior Capitol Hill Reporter Sam Stockard, right, grilling former Rep. Scotty Campbell, on April 20, 2023. (Photo courtesy of NewsChannel 5)
Senior Capitol Hill Reporter Sam Stockard, right, grilling former Rep. Scotty Campbell, on April 20, 2023. (Photo courtesy of NewsChannel 5)


NewsChannel5 reporter Phil Williams posted a picture of me on Twitter this week interviewing former Rep. Scotty Campbell on the House floor last week. In it, he says Campbell was telling me he had no intention to resign for sexual harassment.

Of course, I did ask him whether he would vacate, which he did within two hours after Republican brass got to him. They needed every vote possible to expel two reps, then decided Campbell was expendable.

My question, though: How does Williams know I wasn’t asking Campbell about other critical things such as whether he prefers paper or plastic, Lakers or Celtics, Yankees or Red Sox, Beatles or Stones? 

“No colors anymore/ I want them to turn black.”


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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.