State taps private law firm for Campbell public records challenge

Governor authorized hiring at $375 per hour

By: - June 2, 2023 12:12 pm
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to reflect a response by the state Attorney General’s Office following a public records request.

A Nashville law firm is representing the state in a public records lawsuit over the sexual harassment case surrounding former Rep. Scotty Campbell.

Gov. Bill Lee authorized the hiring of Sherrard Roe Voigt Harbison under terms set by Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti, according to a letter to the law firm signed by the governor, which was obtained by the Tennessee Lookout through a public records request. 

Attorneys with the firm are to be paid $375 an hour, and other personnel will be paid $100 per hour. One of the terms is that the firm must notify the attorney general’s office before making a sovereign immunity argument or waiver during representation.

Eric Osborne and Alex Carver, attorneys with Sherrard Roe Voigt Harbison, notified plaintiff Brian Manookian this week they are working for the state’s Office of Legislative Administration and director Connie Ridley in the lawsuit. Carver told Manookian in an email they are reviewing case materials and meeting with their client and expect to respond to him later in the week.

Manookian filed a challenge in Davidson County Chancery Court to the Office of Legislative Administration’s refusal to open records in the case dealing with Campbell, an East Tennessee Republican found to have sexually harassed a 19-year-old intern who worked at the Legislature this year. 

A hearing is set for June 30 when the state will have to show why it will not make the records public.

Manookian contends the Attorney General’s Office should be defending the state, though that is not part of his lawsuit. 

“Arguably, if you’re good government, this is what you’re supposed to do. You’re not supposed to be spending more taxpayer dollars on this,” he said.

Chancellor Russell Perkins is requiring the state to produce a “privilege log” with all documents and communications related to Campbell’s harassment case and explain why it should remain closed to the public, according to Manookian.

The Office of Legislative Administration and House Speaker Cameron Sexton’s office did not respond to questions early Friday about the hiring of outside counsel. The Attorney General’s Office asked the Tennessee Lookout to make a public records request for the appointment letter designating the law firm as outside counsel in the case.

After a House ethics subcommittee determined Campbell violated the Legislature’s Workplace Discrimination and Harassment Policy, the state spent nearly $8,000 to move the young woman from her apartment near the Cordell Hull Building where the Legislature works to a downtown hotel and to transport her furniture back home. She was also given nearly $1,000 in cash to cover costs at the apartment she left, according to a NewsChannel5 report.

Manookian, who is representing himself after his law license was suspended in an unrelated matter, said his main purpose in filing the challenge is to determine who authorized the expenditures.

“The taxpayers are entitled to that record,” he said.

When Campbell’s case became public, House Speaker Sexton claimed he knew very little about the matter, including the money, and pointed at the Office of Legislative Administration as taking on the expense. Critics have said the speaker’s office is responsible for authorizing those types of expenditures. 

In response to public records requests, Ridley declined to answer questions about the case, including who approved the expenditures, citing a confidentiality clause in the Legislature’s policy that says no information about the complaint will be released to anyone who isn’t directly involved in an investigation, a lawsuit, corrective action or as required by law.

An anonymous member of the ethics subcommittee said the policy is unclear about whether it can authorize the expense of money stemming from an investigation or sanction anyone found to have violated the harassment policy. The subcommittee placed its finding in Campbell’s file in late March but did not mete out any punishment.

Campbell resigned abruptly April 20 after NewsChannel5 reported on the case and just two hours after saying he would not step down from his post. The Johnson County Commission voted recently to fill the vacancy temporarily with former Republican Rep. Timothy Hill, and an election race is under way.

manookian order

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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.