The campus of Tennessee State University in Nashville, the state’s largest historically Black university. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Tennessee State University officials narrowly escaped the wrath of the Legislature this year after a rough comptroller’s audit. But lawmakers peeved at President Glenda Glover managed to put $2 million in the budget for yet another audit, this one a forensic investigation that could be used to file criminal charges.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson and Senate Education Committee Chairman Jon Lundberg played key roles in supporting the audit after the comptroller produced a scathing report that called for Glover’s firing and accused the university of everything except discovering sliced bread.
“Lt. Gov. McNally believes that TSU’s fiscal mismanagement is untenable and that it indicates a leadership failure at the highest levels. While some corrective action has been taken, he believes a follow-up audit would be instructive to ensure that progress is maintained and continued,” spokesman Adam Kleinheider says.
The comptroller’s office is selecting a firm to do the forensic audit, hoping it can be done by early 2024. The office will address TSU’s efforts to correct findings in the most recent audit when it releases the university’s financial audit for fiscal 2022 in a few months.
It’s like a pattern. Any time a Black institution, a Black city starts to do well or move up the food chain, so to speak, there seems to be a problem. Even with TSU, it seems like it’s personal with Dr. Glover. It seems like it’s a pointed attack. – Rep. Vince Dixie, a Memphis Democrat
It’s like a pattern. Any time a Black institution, a Black city starts to do well or move up the food chain, so to speak, there seems to be a problem. Even with TSU, it seems like it’s personal with Dr. Glover. It seems like it’s a pointed attack.
– Rep. Vince Dixie, a Memphis Democrat
That means Tennessee is spending $2 million on top of the comptroller’s annual work, leading some Black lawmakers to raise questions about wasting time and money to make TSU’s president look bad.
Lundberg, a Bristol Republican, says “we need to dig further,” citing concerns that Glover admitted to making financial mistakes, though nothing “criminal,” during hearings. He contends lawmakers aren’t holding the audit over Glover’s head but have “valid concerns” about the university’s policies on housing and operations, academics, and persistent audit findings.
Republican senators were ready to get rid of Glover last November after an ad hoc committee meeting but gave her a reprieve at the end of this year’s session – possibly because of the racial pounding the Legislature took when the House expelled two Black lawmakers for protesting lax gun laws.
Months before the hearing, the comptroller started digging into TSU’s affairs after the university found itself in a housing dilemma: It offered almost four times more scholarship money than normal but didn’t have enough on-campus housing for the newcomers. Students had to stay in hotels and a Nashville church, causing some to complain.
TSU’s sudden growth stemmed not only from extra scholarships but a renaissance of Black colleges and universities coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic and national uproar over the choking death of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer.
But guess what?: The University of Tennessee-Knoxville also put students up in a Holiday Inn seven miles from campus because it ran out of dorms. UT-K is set to house hundreds of students in a new apartment building this year through a $6.7 million lease deal, as it builds three new campus dorms through a public-private partnership.
Rep. Sam McKenzie, chairman of the Black caucus, says Republican lawmakers aren’t so worried about TSU but are going after Glover, who is friends with Vice President Kamala Harris as well as Oprah Winfrey, the keynote speaker at TSU’s recent commencement.
“It’s just an indictment, it’s a witch hunt,” McKenzie says. “It’s a horrible state of affairs.”
He predicts the $2 million audit will come back with the same findings of Comptroller Jason Mumpower’s report this year, which also called for replacement of the board of trustees and renewed oversight by the Tennessee Board of Regents, but found no financial wrongdoing.
“We’re gonna waste $2 million of taxpayers’ money chasing after a narrative that’s false,” McKenzie says.
TSU isn’t without fault. Glover said so. But McKenzie claims TSU isn’t doing anything worse than UT-Knoxville or UT-Chattanooga, and he notes those going after TSU don’t realize how bad it looks to pick on Glover as leader of the state’s only publicly-funded historically Black university.
Rep. Vincent Dixie, a constant critic of supermajority Republicans, agrees, saying the General Assembly and Comptroller’s Office “seem to attack Black areas.” He points not only to TSU but the town of Mason in West Tennessee where Mumpower asserted control over the city budget just as leaders in the majority minority town were trying to take advantage of nearby BlueOval City, the Ford electric truck plant and battery factory funded to the tune of more than $900 million by the state.
In the state’s defense, TSU did net $250 million from Gov. Bill Lee and the Legislature in 2022, but it’s allowed to use the money only for campus upgrades, not the dorms it needs. Of course, TSU got the money only after a state report found Tennessee’s Legislature shorted the university between $150 million and $540 over a century.
In many years, investigators couldn’t even find an entry where the state was supposed to make a contribution to the university.
“It’s like a pattern. Any time a Black institution, a Black city starts to do well or move up the food chain, so to speak, there seems to be a problem,” Dixie says. “Even with TSU, it seems like it’s personal with Dr. Glover. It seems like it’s a pointed attack.”
About the only question remaining is whether Glover can withstand the onslaught or will be gone before the year is done.
The wrangling begins
First-term state Rep. Bryan Richey is asking fellow Republicans to join him in calling for Gov. Bill Lee to cancel a planned August special session to consider gun control measures. Proponents say they’re needed in response to The Covenant School shooting in which three adults and three 9-year-old children were gunned down by a person armed with an AR-15 and more.
In a letter posted on Twitter, the Maryville Republican contends Lee’s plan to extend the state’s order of protection law to allow weapons confiscation from mentally unstable people violates people’s constitutional rights.
Come to think of it, that could apply to half of the General Assembly, many of whom could be considered a danger to themselves and others, so no wonder many are opposed.
But getting back to Richey, who complains that the Legislature already ditched the governor’s plan, thus no reason to return in late summer. He also says activists, a “woke mob,” are training for disruptions that will “make the ‘Tennessee Three’ circus look like a dress rehearsal.” Richey voted to expel Reps. Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson but not Rep. Gloria Johnson, who escaped expulsion.
Republicans aren’t exactly falling all over themselves to join Richey in his open letter. Only Sen. Janice Bowling and Rep. Todd Warner had signed on by Thursday before noon, reminiscent of the army of three Rep. Scott Cepicky put together against the BlueOval City incentive.
Rep. Ed Butler of Rickman put his name on it, then backed away. Gee, I wonder who got to him.
House Majority Leader William Lamberth and Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison responded to Richey’s post by saying their caucus would be “ready, willing and able to debate the best way forward for our state, just as we have done in five previous special sessions. We will continue to defend and preserve civil rights while ensuring every community is safer than it is today.”
Republicans have two and a half months to quarrel. Thank God Almighty, we don’t have to go back to the Capitol until late August to find out whether we’ll be safer.
About those ramblings
Metro Nashville Law Director Wally Dietz lobbed a soft-shell taco at Sen. Todd Gardenhire this week, saying he didn’t understand why the Chattanooga Republican filed a lawsuit to get access to The Covenant School shooter’s writings. Gardenhire joined The Tennessean in seeking release of the documents, which is about like the NRA and ACLU teaming up.
Dietz pointed out state law permits any lawmaker to go to TBI’s Nashville office and look at any investigative file.
“I’m confused what that’s all about. He has a statutory right, as does every member of the Legislature, to go ask the TBI to look at this file,” Dietz said. “We’re not trying to hide any of this from anybody. But there is some really sensitive information in there that we do not believe should be reproduced based on school safety and the fact that there is still an ongoing criminal investigation.”
Gardenhire, who has said for weeks the documents should be opened through the Tennessee Public Records Act, defended himself by saying the TBI has offered to let him look at the writings but that he would have to agree to keep the information confidential. Police say school shooter Audrey Hale, who was killed by police that day, left writings in a home and vehicle.
Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gardenhire contends his lawsuit with The Tennessean is different from those filed by others in that it doesn’t ask for every bit of information, such as video footage, autopsies, etc.
“They want things that are not necessary to make policy. I’m only interested in how we make policy based on what Audrey Hale did and why that person did it,” he said. “I need to be able to share that information with members of the committee.”
If he signs a TBI waiver, he can’t do that, and he notes others are aware of that caveat. Several members of the Legislature have seen the files, he says, but “you can’t even hint about what’s in them.”
So while Gardenhire’s critics say he doesn’t need to see the shooter’s writings to write legislation, he’s accusing others of “playing games.”
But why would Gardenhire want to write a state law based on the mind-set of one person who conducted a mass killing instead of taking a broader look at the matter?
“I don’t even know if we can address by law things that would have stopped that. But we don’t know,” Gardenhire says.
Meanwhile, Nashville Judge I’Ashea Myles is allowing The Covenant School and parents to intervene in the legal battle over release of the writings. They don’t want them released – ever.
At some point, though, the documents need to be released, not to help the Legislature write laws but because they are public records.
New Williamson DA appointed
The governor tabbed Stacey Edmonson this week as district attorney general for the 21st District, to replace the late Kim Helper who died after a brief illness in late March.
Edmonson has worked in the office for nearly two decades, most recently as deputy district attorney general for 12 years.
The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance turned over an investigation of Cade Cothren, former chief of staff for ex-House Speaker Glen Casada, and a related political action committee and vendor to Helper’s office last year. Work is expected to continue on that matter, though top Registry officials haven’t heard from the DA’s Office.
More drama reported
The Tennessee Journal spent a good deal of time in federal court last week (while the Stump was vacationing) and found out Cade Cothren’s legal team hired a private investigator who sent threatening or “unprofessional” emails to people expected to testify in his October corruption trial.
The investigator was subsequently fired, according to defense attorney Cynthia Sherwood, who likened questions in the letter to those that might be posed by an investigative reporter (Is that a slap in the face of journalists?).
Cothren and Casada are accused of participating in a kickback scheme, along with former Rep. Robin Smith, involving campaign vendor Phoenix Solutions and lawmakers’ constituent mailers, which are paid for by the state and involve federal funds. Smith resigned last year after being indicted and is cooperating with the feds.
Sherwood told the court the private investigator was trying to poke holes in the legitimacy of House Speaker Cameron Sexton with questions about alleged marital infidelity and whether Cothren helped him win the speakership, according to the TNJ.
In addition to describing some of Sexton’s testimony before a grand jury, which is unheard of but apparently not illegal, Sherwood contended the questions were appropriate because federal prosecutors claim Cothren tried to hide his role with Phoenix Solutions to keep House members from finding out he was running the company, just months after he resigned in a racist and sexist text message scandal.
Besides gaming Republican lawmakers who didn’t know who was running Phoenix Solutions, the vendor also landed tens of thousands from the House Republican Caucus.
Cothren has been saying for months “the truth” will come out.
In fact, he filed a motion in court Thursday saying he was a Sexton confidante when Casada resigned in 2019 and stayed in close contact with him during the House speaker’s race. Cothren’s filing says records from Confide, an encrypted messaging service, will prove Sexton spoke frequently with Cothren and was trying to get him a job as a lobbyist or with the state.
“These communications are integral to Mr. Cothren’s defense in this matter because the government’s case appears to rely – heavily – on its theory that Mr. Cothren’s reputation was so tarnished after his resignation that Speaker Sexton was adamantly opposed to associating or working with him at all, even on administrative matters,” the filing says.
It is interesting that Phoenix Solutions, the bogus company connected to Cothren, was able to procure so much work with Republicans in the time shortly after his firing.
But will his case go to trial in October as scheduled, or will he and Casada find a way to wriggle out of it? And if Cothren does take the stand, will he find a way to implicate Sexton, who has said he is cooperating with federal authorities too?
Aside from the August special session, which is going to be loud if nothing else, we have something to mull through the heat of summer and into the golden months.
Speaking of wriggling, former state Sen. Brian Kelsey won’t worm his way out of a November 2022 guilty plea for breaking federal campaign laws by funneling money from his state account to his failed 2016 congressional bid.
Kelsey tried to renege on the plea by claiming his judgment was clouded by crying twin babies and the illness and death of his father.
Prosecutor John Taddei argued in federal court last week that Kelsey’s testimony last week wasn’t “credible,” noting he passed laws in the Legislature impacting other people’s criminal rights but wants to be “held to a different standard,” according to notes from the Tennessee Journal.
Kelsey’s defense attorney David Warrington responded that Kelsey would gain “nothing” by reversing his guilty plea.
“He gets a longer sentence if he loses. And if he wins, he goes to trial. There’s nothing tactical,” Warrington said, according to the TNJ.
Still, U.S. District Court Judge Waverly Crenshaw ruled Kelsey must stick with the guilty plea and move forward with sentencing. During the hearing, Crenshaw asked prosecutors whether they had any objections to the presentence report put together before Kelsey was to be sentenced initially.
“We may now, your honor,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Klopf said.
Defense attorney Paul Bruno, who represented Kelsey at his plea but not for his reneging, said the defense had some objections but hadn’t filed them while he was trying to reverse his plea.
Bruno also testified at the prosecution’s request after Kelsey put his representation on hold, which could prove to be a thorn in the feds’ side if Kelsey appeals, which he probably will.
Nevertheless, the Stump’s previous prediction changes: Kelsey will pay a hefty fine and could do at least a year in federal prison, no less.
Which reminds me of a song by the beloved Tina Turner, born as Anna Mae Bullock in Nutbush, Tennessee, may she finally rest: “And I never lost one minute of sleeping / Worrying about the way things might’ve been.”
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