Less than three years after five present and former state legislators were arrested for taking envelopes full of cash in the FBI’s “Tennessee Waltz” bribery sting, some lawmakers want to roll back ethics laws that were enacted to help prevent more crimes. And guess what? They’re being really sneaky about it.
Lawmakers are stalling on taking action, the idea being to keep a low profile and stave off pesky media criticism until after the April qualifying deadline for challengers in the November elections.
Then, if the old scripts are followed, the full House or Senate won’t vote until the final, frantic days of the session when legislators, after dallying in Nashville for months, suddenly start racing through hundreds of bills and trying their best to slip things past reporters and therefore the public.
Chairing a special committee pretending to study whether ethics law changes are needed is House Majority Leader Gary Odom, a Nashville Democrat whose regular job wrinkles noses even in our ethically challenged legislature. Insisting there’s no conflict of interest, he’s employed full-time by a trade association that lobbies lawmakers.
When the ethics study committee met in January, its members complained bitterly about the terrible burdens of practicing good government. They really hate a provision in the law that basically bans lobbyists from wining and dining legislators.
Lawmakers, who are craftier than you might think, don’t usually say publicly that they want to party all night on the lobbyists’ tab. Instead, they say the gift ban is hurting relations with constituents who want to treat their legislators to a simple meal while discussing issues of mutual concern.
“I feel like a space alien child,” said Rep. Ulysses Jones, a Memphis Democrat. “When they have a reception, I’ve just got to sit in the room and watch TV. We’ve really damaged our constituent relationships. At these community events, it’s embarrassing that they’re debating whether you can have a biscuit.”
“If we’re not careful,” Odom chimed in, “our public policy will insult those who invite us and want to meet with us. We have by way of this cut ourselves off from hearing from a lot of our constituents. That is troubling.”
Rep. Randy Rinks, a Democrat from Savannah, thought the ethics law was turning Nashville into a nasty, partisan place. Lawmakers who don’t party together don’t trust each other, he warned. “The interaction between members isn’t there anymore.… And then there’s a lack of trust between parties because we don’t really know each other and then we become like Washington.”
Rep. Curry Todd, a Republican from Collierville, said he favors letting lobbyists and their employers spend $1,000 a year on each legislator at the rate of $75 a meal. Public disclosure would be required, but who would pay atention to that? Let the good times roll!
The meeting attracted headlines, and the committee hasn’t met again. Odom blew off a March 1 deadline for issuing a report.
“We can’t get a quorum or when we can get a quorum we can’t get a meeting room, so I’m not sure what, if anything, is going to happen before the end of the session,” Odom tells the Scene.
It’s no surprise that the committee hasn’t yet considered any ideas to strengthen ethics laws. But if anyone’s looking for suggestions, how about tightening up the law that’s supposed to bar lawmakers from getting paid by someone other than state government for trying to influence legislation?
Despite that 2005 law, Odom is the paid executive director of the Tennessee Optometric Association. Odom sits on the Health and Human Resources Committee, which hears bills affecting optometrists, but he claims he never tries to exert influence on their behalf. He says he performs chores for optometrists like organizing annual conferences. During six-month legislative sessions, how does he find time to earn his association salary, which he won’t disclose? “I work a lot of weekends. I work on Fridays. I work at home a lot,” he says.
A quick Google search, however, suggests what everyone suspects—that the optometrists are paying Odom to watch over their interests at the Capitol. We found a 2003 memo purportedly from Odom to association members in which he argues against a proposal to mandate two-year degrees for optician licenses and promises to keep track of that issue in the legislature. (Odom won’t confirm that he wrote the memo, which was posted in an eye-care chat room. “I can’t determine what, if any, portion of this communication was drafted by me,” he says.)
The association’s lobbyist, John Williams—who also represents the Scene from time to time on legal issues—says Odom did send such memos to optometrists occasionally before the conflict-of-interest law was enacted.
“It might be viewed as a conflict of interest, but it wasn’t against the law,” Williams says. “But I can tell you for sure that since that ethics law passed, we’ve been very careful to make sure that I, as the lobbyist, am the only one communicating with the membership on legislative matters.”
It’s good to know that Odom’s not ignoring the law. In the legislature’s scuzzy culture, that’s a step in the right direction.
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This is exactly why we have juries.