The two boards that will rule on ethics complaints filed against Gov. Bill Haslam by a former state Democratic chairman currently have Republican majority membership because of unfilled vacancies — in one case, because Haslam has left a seat designated for a Democrat empty since March.
“I think the governor has put himself in a very uncomfortable spot, perception-wise,” said state Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis. “He is now going to be picking a judge who will be hearing his case.”
Former state Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester last week filed complaints with the Tennessee Ethics Commission and the Registry of Election Finance, contending that Haslam violated state law by not disclosing his personal payments to lobbyist and political operative Tom Ingram.
Forrester said that he has concerns about Haslam making an appointment of someone who will vote on whether the complaint is valid but still thinks Haslam should fill the empty slot.
Haslam was not available for comment, and his spokesman, David Smith, said only that the governor will make an appointment at some point.
“We’re working through the due diligence process of identifying and vetting potential candidates,” Smith said in an email. “I don’t think it’d be accurate to say that he’ll appoint someone while there’s a complaint against him because we don’t know the timeline of the filing process.”
Both the Ethics Commission, which enforces the state’s lobbying and conflict-of-interest laws, and the Registry, which enforces campaign finance laws, are supposed to have six members — three Democrats and three Republicans. Each currently has one vacancy, in both cases a designated Democratic seat.
In the case of the Ethics Commission, which apparently will have its first official review of the Forrester complaint in a closed-door meeting on Sept. 11, the vacancy was created March 23 with the resignation of Pam Martin.
State law requires the governor to make two appointments, one a Democrat and the other a Republican. Martin held the seat designated for a Democrat. The House and Senate speakers also make two appointments each — one from a list supplied by the Democratic Caucus; the other from a list supplied by the Republican Caucus.
The law is silent on how the governor decides who to appoint in the case of the Ethics Commission, said John Allyn, legal counsel for both the Ethics Commission and the Registry. That leaves the governor with wide discretion.
The Registry has a similar appointment process for members, though state law says that the governor’s appointments of Democratic and Republican members to that body must be selected from a list of nominees submitted by the state party executive committees — the Democratic Executive Committee for Democrats; the Republican Executive Committee for Republicans.
The Registry vacancy is a seat designated for appointment by the Senate speaker from a list supplied by the Senate Democratic Caucus. It has been empty since last December.
Kyle said that the caucus in January moved to have former state Sen. Bob Rochelle, D-Lebanon, named to the panel — but Rochelle, a lawyer, later realized his representation of local government clients could conflict with state law strictly limiting the political involvements of Registry board members.
“Since that time, we have searched for an appropriate person,” Kyle said. “It’s a very difficult thing to find somebody who is interested in politics enough to serve, but then willing to give up being involved in politics” because of the law’s prohibition of political activity by members.
Forrester said “there is no good solution to the problem the governor has created by not filling that vacancy (on the Ethics Commission) months ago” and wonders “what kind of conversations he will have with the Democratic appointee.”
“But now that the horse is out of the barn … it would seem to me incumbent on the governor to move expeditiously to fill the vacancy,” Forrester said.
Smith declined to answer questions on how Haslam goes about selecting a Democrat for appointment or on the merits of Forrester’s complaint — other than referring a reporter to Haslam comments before the complaint was filed.
In a July encounter with reporters, videotaped by the News Sentinel, Haslam said that only a “miniscule” amount of political advice was given him by Ingram during the period the governor was paying Ingram out of personal funds — from January 2011 until July 1 of this year. Those payments are the basis of Forrester’s complaint.
Forrester, who stepped down in January as Tennessee Democratic Party chairman, points to state law that requires disclosure of all political contributions — including those made by a candidate to his or her own campaign.
If Haslam was paying Ingram for political advice, Forrester contends, he was effectively contributing to his own campaign for re-election in 2014 and should disclose the amount of the payments.
Haslam has refused to do so, though saying his re-election campaign began paying Ingram $5,000 per month starting July 1. The campaign payments must be disclosed, though legally not until January 2014.
In his July discussion with reporters, Haslam sought to draw a distinction between the personal payments for advice on “state issues” or “Washington issues” and political advice payments.
He said that, during the personal payment period, Ingram only “three or four times” talked politics with him and then only for “two or three minutes” on each occasion.
When a reporter noted that Ingram attended a “campaign planning retreat” during that period, Haslam said Ingram was not paid for that, just as a pollster working for the campaign and a fundraiser working for the campaign where not paid to attend. They all attended with the expectation of being paid later by the campaign, he said, and that had nothing to do with the “retainer” he personally paid Ingram for advice on non-political subjects.