When state Rep. Gary Moore of Joelton voted for the ethics bill that bars legislators from being paid for “consulting” on pending bills, he was quite conscious of his own awkward situation as president of the Tennessee Professional Fire Fighters Association (TPFFA), which advocates for legislation at the state level. So Moore, who values his above-board reputation, asked Attorney General Paul Summers for his opinion on the matter, and the answer he got last week—that Moore would probably be in violation of the new law—has compelled him to voluntarily step down from his TPFFA post.
It was therefore only natural for local observers to take a closer look at another member of the Davidson County delegation: state Rep. Gary Odom, who has served as executive director of the Tennessee Optometric Association (TOA) for over 25 years. Odom has always been vulnerable on this issue because it seems like such a blatant conflict of interest on its face. Furthermore, Odom has always responded to any criticism on this topic stubbornly, maintaining in no uncertain terms that there’s no conflict. This, of course, has only added fuel to the fire. Some of Odom’s legislative colleagues have sponsored bills in the past with the thinly disguised aim of forcing him to choose between the TOA and the legislature. Notwithstanding these efforts, the man has survived in the House for two decades, and, according to Odom, this latest AG’s opinion won’t change that a bit. The opinion, he tells the Scene, “doesn’t apply” to him.
Odom and his detractors can debate the ethical ins and outs of his day job all day long, and we’ll happily leave them to it, but about the AG’s opinion itself, Odom’s probably right. For one thing, the TOA is a different animal than the TPFFA, which is organized largely for the purpose of advocating for favorable state legislation for firefighters. In contrast, the TOA is more in the vein of a trade association. While TOA does support and oppose legislation at the state level from time to time, that’s only one of its functions; others include professional development for its members and public education about optical health and vision care.
Also, the positions themselves are different. The AG’s opinion makes clear that the office of TPFFA “president” is—by design—coupled to the lobbying efforts of that organization. Odom, on the other hand, serves in what is more or less an administrative capacity at the TOA, steering clear, as he puts it, of the organization’s lobbying arm, which answers not to Odom but to TOA’s board of directors. (In fact, a few years ago, the TOA lobbied heavily against a “patient’s bill of rights” bill that Odom sponsored.)
Lest we get too ahead of ourselves, though, the AG’s opinion leaves open the possibility that a person who simply oversees the “day-to-day operations” of an association that engages in lobbying efforts may still come under the purview of the new law. Thus, Moore makes a good point when he suggests that every legislator—including Odom—should “look at his or her individual circumstances to determine if those might warrant asking the same thing [that Moore asked] of the attorney general.”
It’s worth noting that just because something is called an “attorney general’s opinion,” it doesn’t mean the AG himself wrote it. Staff attorneys almost always write these opinions on the AG’s behalf because their boss has more important things to do, like, say, haranguing country music performers. Recently, one of Paul Summers’ staff members went to a Gretchen Wilson concert with two 15-year-olds in tow and saw the singer flash a can of Skoal smokeless tobacco to the audience during a song. Unfortunately for Wilson, this particular staffer oversees the tobacco settlement agreement in Summers’ office and thought this to be a violation of the promise by tobacco companies to refrain from the promotion of tobacco products to children. Summers agreed with this assessment and publicly called out Wilson to discontinue the practice. After some initial hesitation, Wilson capitulated to the demand, which demonstrates for all of us the sorry state of “outlaw” country music.
General Summers, we would appreciate an opinion from your office answering the following questions:
1. The concert in question took place in St. Louis. Since when does the Tennessee attorney general’s jurisdiction extend to Missouri?
2. As we understand this, there are no objections to Wilson performing the song "Skoal Ring," so while it’s not OK for Wilson to flash a Skoal tobacco can for three seconds, it is OK for Wilson to sing about Skoal tobacco for three minutes. Huh? Please explain.
3. If your tobacco settlement attorney is so sensitive about impressionable young minds, why on earth did she take two teenagers to a concert given by a woman who sings about sex, booze and—oh yeah—tobacco?
Your prompt attention to these concerns would be appreciated.