Monthly Archives: August 2014

Sherrell and DesJarlais: A Q&A

The Murfreesboro Daily News Journal has a Q&A on some issues with U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais and his Democratic challenger, Lenda Sherrell, in the 4th Congressional District primary. (DesJarlais HERE; Sherrell HERE.)

There are some differences there, for example in response to their stance on the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare:

DesJarlais: The Affordable Care Act is an unworkable, bureaucratic mess that will ultimately diminish access to quality medical care. As a physician for nearly 20 years, I know that health-care decisions need to be made between patients and their doctors. Unfortunately, the president’s health care law takes these decisions away from individuals and their families and puts them in the hands of Washington bureaucrats, many of which have no medical training or experience.

Sherrell: The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is not a perfect law, but it’s a good starting point for Americans who could not afford health care or were once denied coverage due to pre-existing conditions. According to a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 20 million Americans now have insurance coverage through the insurance marketplaces, provisions in the act for those qualifying for Medicaid and those covered through the Children’s Health Insurance Program. More than half of enrollees were previously uninsured. We cannot turn around now and kick those people out of their current insurance plans.

TN officials unable — or unwilling — to prosecute payday loan sharks?

Now that New York prosecutors have pieced together and indicted a payday lending syndicate that operated under the noses of Tennessee’s top law enforcement officials for years, the Chattanooga Times-Free Press says Volunteer state officials admit they were held back by a subjective process with unclear lines of responsibility and insufficient resources to pursue such an investigation.

Legal experts have acknowledged that if the usury charges against payday lender Carey Vaughn Brown are true, he could have been subject to prosecution for criminal usury in Tennessee. Yet the onetime used-car dealer was able to continue making allegedly illegal loans from Tennessee until he was shut down by New York regulators in 2013 and then indicted in August.

“I do think there’s a problem in Tennessee with prosecuting white-collar crimes,” said Mark Pickrell, an attorney and adjunct professor at Vanderbilt Law School. “When it comes to white-collar crime, it takes a lot of resources. It is detail-oriented, takes a lot of documents, takes a lot of witness work. It’s a lot harder than ‘Joe punched Bob in the nose.'”

The payday case echoes the implosion of an alleged family Ponzi scheme in Soddy-Daisy, in which bankruptcy trustee Jerry Farinash alleged the perpetrators used the family tax business to identify and fleece dozens of retirees and widows. But the admitted ringleader, Jack Edwin Brown, died with no charges to his name.

Tennessee’s passive stance in prosecuting homegrown financial scandals sets the Volunteer State apart from aggressive crackdowns on illegal lending, mortgage and debt collection practices at the federal level and in a handful of other states.

The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which now keeps watch over the 12 million consumers who use payday loans, in July charged one of the nation’s largest payday lenders, ACE Cash Express, with illegal debt collection practices. The lender agreed to a $10 million settlement in July.

…Under Tennessee law, much of the responsibility for white-collar prosecutions rests with the local district attorney, who has wide latitude over whether to bring charges.

Tennessee is the only state whose attorney general is appointed by the state Supreme Court rather than elected. Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper has not pursued headline-grabbing white-collar criminal indictments like AGs in other states, where such investigations help win elections.

A survey of news releases issued by Cooper’s office from 2011 to 2014 shows that many of Tennessee’s biggest legal victories were spearheaded by other states in concert with federal officials against big companies like GE Capital, Toyota and Google.

In each year, only a handful of Tennessee white-collar cases that merited news releases — such as a number of deceptive advertising claims, several attorneys practicing without a license and an $800,000 Medicare fraud settlement with the Chattanooga-based AIM Center — were led by the state itself.

In fact, Medicare fraud investigations receive special federal task-force funding to clamp down on the practice. Payday lending and other white-collar criminal investigations in Tennessee receive no such stipend, state prosecutors said, which leaves local district attorneys to choose whether to pursue those high-cost investigations on their own dime.

On the other hand, payday lenders have no problem spending money in political and law enforcement circles. Nationally, payday lenders spent $4.7 million lobbying lawmakers in 2012, according to OpenSecrets.org.

Locally, Carey Brown contributed more than $1,000 to Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond in 2012, earning a spot on the sheriff’s 71-member “posse,” for which Brown received a special identification card.

Brown, a former Georgia resident who now lives in a gated mansion in Ooltewah, also contributed over the years to U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.; U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., and U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga.; as well as to national presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson and congressional candidate Weston Wamp, according to OpenSecrets.org.

He has been generous with local civic and charitable organizations, too.

Jim Kyle moves on… and remembers

Richard Locker has recorded some reminiscences of Jim Kyle, who on Friday became a Shelby County chancellor after three decades as a state senator, as well as thoughts of some he dealt with over the years.

“You remember the people, you remember the faces, you remember some of the more dramatic events. I’m going to miss the give and take,” said Kyle.

There was the towering figure of the late John Wilder, Senate speaker longer than anyone in history. There was the three-year running battle over state tax reform and income tax.

“When I first got elected, people asked what do you like about being in the Senate. I said, when you can stand up in a room of people and tell them what you think ought to happen and they’ve got to listen to you, that’s fun.”

But it was less the debate and more the nuts and bolts work on important legislation that Kyle is known for here. After winning a special election to a vacant seat in June 1983, the senator arrived in time to work on then-governor Lamar Alexander’s Better Schools Program, his first votes during a special session Alexander called to address Tennessee’s first wave of education policy changes in decades.

A few years later, Kyle crafted the key compromise that led to passage of the second wave, Ned McWherter’s sweeping program for more equity in state funding among school districts and for state takeover of failing schools.

… Sen. Mark Norris of Collierville has occupied the center-right chair opposite Kyle. “Jim and I were sparring partners for many years in his role as Democratic leader and mine as Republican leader. He was a worthy opponent in the professional sense but we became pretty good friends over the years as a result of it. I told him before and I will say it publicly: I will miss him as my sparring partner and as my friend. Here’s another passing of an era.”

On the funeral for George ‘Citizen’ Barrett

Excerpt from the Tennessean’s report on George Barrett’s funeral:

Celebrating the life of a man who worked well into his 80s to give voice to the voiceless, civil rights attorney George Barrett’s family, friends and admirers filled Cathedral of the Incarnation on Saturday for a tearful but often joyful funeral.

Barrett, who died Tuesday of acute pancreatitis at the age of 86, sued every Tennessee governor at least once after he started practicing law in 1957, he noted in a 2013 commencement speech that son-in-law Mark Brewer read to the congregation. But former Gov. Phil Bredesen was among the hundreds sitting in the pews, as were former U.S. Sen. Jim Sasser, former Mayor Richard Fulton, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, civil rights leader Charles Kimbrough, State Comptroller Justin Wilson, ACLU leader Hedy Weinberg, Police Chief Steve Anderson and many other prominent Nashville residents.

Many of them had gathered in the same church just 47 days earlier for the funeral of Tennessean Chairman Emeritus John Seigenthaler, Barrett’s high school classmate, lifelong friend and fellow champion of progressive causes. Their deaths have led some people to lament the end of an era in Nashville.

But those who are still living have to continue the work that kept Barrett going to the office six days a week until he fell ill three weeks ago, law partner Jerry Martin said.

Sunday column: Alexander, DesJarlais troubles give hope to downtrodden TN Democrats

Hope springs eternal, or at least internal, among Tennessee Democrats longing for a break in the routine of Republican romps through the general election season, and those expectations are on the upswing this Labor Day because of Lamar Alexander and Scott DesJarlais.

The GOP nominees for U.S. senator and the 4th Congressional District are both seen, for different reasons, as vulnerable to credible Democratic opponents. Democratic nominees Gordon Ball, opposing Alexander, and Lenda Sherrell, opposing DesJarlais, are still extreme underdogs. But they do inspire reasonable hope.

Elsewhere on the general election landscape, Democrats are likely to lose two of their remaining seven seats in the 33-member state Senate — thanks to retirement of two Democratic incumbents — and will be hard-pressed to maintain 27 seats in the 99-member House. The party nominee for governor, Charlie Brown, is the subject of GOP “good grief” jokes in opposing Gov. Bill Haslam.

Ah, but Alexander spent more than $6 million during his campaign for the Republican nomination and still found just over half of the state’s GOP electorate (50.36 percent) voting for someone else. That was more than a $6-to-$1 advantage over runner-up Joe Carr, who still had more than 40 percent of the vote, with other primary candidates collectively getting about 10 percent.

So Alexander, 74, seeking his third Senate term after 40 years as a politician, is less than wildly popular among members of his own party.
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Haslam shrugs off Womick’s ‘traitor’ claims

Gov. Bill Haslam says he had nothing to do with picking who his key supporters would target in this year’s Republican legislative primaries through Advance Tennessee, a political action committee that spent at least $140,000 trying to unseat five incumbent lawmakers, reports Andrea Zelinski. But he stopped short of denying any involvement with the group.

Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, called the governor a “traitor” this week in light of revelations a group of the governor’s key supporters teamed up to contribute thousands of dollars to unseat Republican legislators who butt heads with the governor.

Asked whether he denies Womick’s assertion that the governor had a direct hand in targeting lawmakers, Haslam said, “Again, I have folks who have supported us who are concerned about who gets elected to the legislature, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

Haslam said, “I didn’t select one opponent, I can assure you that.” He added he didn’t encourage anyone to run against targeted legislators.

“As you know, contests get very personal. And so you start to hear lots of conversation back and forth about who’s doing this or that, and you know, it’s not always accurate,” he said.

Womick penned a letter earlier this month calling out what he called the administration’s “treasonous targeting, in this month’s primary.”

Note: Previous post HERE.

On the ‘armies of lobbyists, politicians and voters’ fighting over Chattanooga’s high-speed, broadband system

The Chattanooga TFP takes a long look at the controversy revolving around the city-owned Electric Power Board’s request that the Federal Communications Commission overrule a state law so that EPB can expand its fiber-optic service beyond current borders.

Access to high-speed broadband Internet for Coltrin and thousands like her is currently being argued by armies of lobbyists, politicians and voters, who have formed battle lines in the debate over the expansion of Chattanooga’s gigabit network, slinging their final arrows as the FCC’s comment period on EPB’s petition draws to a close (Friday).

Comcast, AT&T and a host of politicians in Nashville and Washington, D.C., have moved to stop what they see as a federal usurpation of a state’s right to regulate telecommunications, while Chattanooga residents and broadband proponents across the country say they’re simply supporting the rights of cities to determine their own broadband future.

The debate pits mayors against legislators, counties against states and Republicans against Republicans, as Tennessee’s ruling party faces a split within its own ranks and among constituents who say access to broadband should transcend petty politics.

Small-government conservatives face a choice to either support a federal agency in its effort to free local citizens from state shackles, or side with state legislatures against what some see as federal overreach into their affairs.

For Coltrin, herself a Republican, the debate is simply a civil rights issue.

“We’d still have slavery if they states could make any laws they wanted to,” she said. “We certainly would still have segregation.”

Caught in the middle is the FCC, which says it simply wants to enforce the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a law that ordered the agency to eliminate barriers to entry for broadband access. Tom Wheeler, the former cable industry lobbyist who now serves as chairman of the FCC, has praised Chattanooga as the “poster child for the benefits of community broadband networks, and also a prime example of the efforts to restrict them,” though he hasn’t said how he’ll vote.

The outcome is already in doubt. An amendment to an appropriations bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Republican congresswoman for Tennessee’s seventh district, would freeze the FCC’s funding if it attempts to overturn state prohibitions on the expansion of municipal broadband.

“We don’t need unelected bureaucrats in Washington telling our states what they can and can’t do with respect to protecting their limited taxpayer dollars and private enterprises,” Blackburn said of the measure, which was approved by a vote of 223-200.

But U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., himself a strong supporter of states’ rights, opposes Blackburn’s measure and said he had no plans to back down from his support of EPB’s expansion into underserved communities.

“At the most rudimentary level, I would say that this is a matter of local versus state government,” he said. “The further you get away from local in terms of decision making, the further it gets away from your constituents.”

Note: The National Governors Association (presumably with the approval of Gov. Bill Haslam) weighed in Friday by filing comments with the FCC urging the agency to allow the state law to stand and reject EPB’s request, reports The Hill.

AG outlines procedure for filling Senate District 30 vacancy

Attorney General Bob Cooper has issued an opinion on the procedures to be followed in choosing Democratic and Republican nominees to succeed Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis, who is resigning his Senate District 30 seat to become a Chancery Court judge. The opinion is HERE.

And here is Jackson Baker’s summary of what it means:

(1) require nominations to be made by the two major parties’ local governing bodies — the Shelby County Democratic executive committee and the Shelby County Republican steering committee;

(2) limit the number of eligible voters to those committee members who represent precincts that lie within Senate District 30.

In the case of Democrats, who elect most of their executive committee members by House District, this effectively franchises all members representing House Districts which contain such precincts.

Republicans also elect many of their steering committee members from House Districts, but a majority of their committee members are at-large and will also be enabled to vote.

(3) require House members seeking the Senate nomination to withdraw from the November ballot before attempting to win their party’s nomination for the Senate. This requirement places a clear burden upon rumored candidates like Democratic state Reps. Antonio Parkinson and G.A. Hardaway, inasmuch as the withdrawal of either from the November ballot would necessitate a write-in campaign to fill the ballot void for their party’s House race.

Preliminary word is that the county’s Democratic committee will be asked by chairman Bryan Carson to convene on September 8 to name a candidate.

All candidacies, whether by party nomination or by independents, must be certified by a date 45 days from the date of the November 4 election. That would seem to make the September 20 the effective deadline for application to the Election Commission.

Judge hears arguments in TennCare lawsuit, plans to rule next week

A federal judge plans to rule next week in a lawsuit seeking class-action status for would-be TennCare enrollees who charge Tennessee officials delayed processing their Medicaid applications for months despite requirements of the federal health care law, according to the Chattanooga TFP.

U.S. District Court Judge Todd Campbell of Nashville made the announcement Friday following three hours of sometimes heated arguments by attorneys for the would-be enrollees and the state.

Campbell will rule on the request for class-action status as well as plaintiffs’ request for an injunction.

The injunction would force the state’s Tenn-Care Bureau to follow the 45-day limit on processing applications in order to get people signed up more quickly for health coverage. It accuses the state of relying solely on the federal government’s online health care exchange to enroll applicants and doing virtually nothing to help Tennesseans who encounter problems enrolling.

In Tennessee, the Medicaid health coverage program for low-income mothers, their children and some disabled people is operated as TennCare.

The suit was filed on behalf of 11 named plaintiffs and other unnamed individuals by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Tennessee Justice Center and the National Health Law Program.

All of the named plaintiffs say their cases lingered for at least 140 days and others are said to have waited 200 or more days.

Tennessee officials concede their planned $35.7 million system designed to handle applications in conjunction with the federal heath insurance exchange system has been a bust.

Under the best-case scenario, the system is more than three months away from being operational. The state may have to switch contractors to get the job done. At this point they’ve hired a consultant to see how big a problem Tennessee has on its hands.

“The one option the state does not have is to throw up their hands and do nothing,” attorney Christopher Coleman with the Tennessee Justice Center told Campbell.

But state officials are seeking to lay problems at the feet of the Obama administration, saying they can’t get full access to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ system.

Jury returns guilty verdict in Knox corruption trial

A trial that put a spotlight on corruption in the Knox County Trustee’s Office ended late Friday with a guilty verdict, reports the News Sentinel.

Jurors in Knox County Criminal Court spent more than seven hours deliberating before deeming Delbert Morgan, 58, guilty of felony theft. Judge Steve Sword set an Oct. 23 sentencing date.

The conviction carries a penalty range of eight to 12 years, but Morgan, who has no criminal history, qualifies for probation and perhaps judicial diversion. Diversion would keep the conviction off his record if he stays on the straight and narrow during a probationary period.

Defense attorney Jeff Daniel said a request for diversion “could be a possibility.”

Morgan was accused of ripping off taxpayers to the tune of $200,000 for collecting pay and benefits he did not earn. Prosecutors alleged he was a ghost employee put on the payroll by his college buddy, former Trustee Mike Lowe, as a favor.

…But Daniel framed the case not as thievery or corruption, but as a basic misunderstanding of the employment deal between Morgan and Lowe.

“The state is using all this evidence to create a false impression of this position he did not have,” Daniel said.

Morgan testified Lowe needed help valuing property deeded to the county when efforts to collect property taxes failed. Morgan already was a successful businessman with his own work to do. He agreed to help his buddy but, Morgan testified, on his own time.

Lowe said he’d set him up on a salary, and Lowe aide Sam Harb would handle his pay. Morgan signed blank time sheets and collected his paychecks.

Morgan testified he couldn’t remember how much time he spent working for Lowe but pegged the figure at no more than 15 hours per week. Harb admitted in testimony he’s the one who filled out the time sheets with all those bogus hours.

If anyone was a thief, Daniel argued, it was Harb.

“Sam Harb put the times in there,” Daniel said. “Why is Sam Harb not indicted?”

The way Daniel saw it, Morgan — albeit clueless about his salary or why his checks grew fatter over time — did the work Lowe said he would pay him to do.