By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In the typical fray of the legislative session, few paid close attention to a seemingly innocuous bill about recycling computer equipment. That was until federal agents started arresting lawmakers.
Tuesday marks the 10th anniversary of the arrest of five former lawmakers in the FBI’s bribery sting operation codenamed Tennessee Waltz. The case involved a scheme by lawmakers to collect money in exchange for shepherding through bills on behalf of the company called E-Cycle Management.
E-Cycle was an FBI front company that secretly recorded 2,000 hours of video and audio of lawmakers being wined and dined — and paid off in cash by undercover agents.
Following the corruption sting, lawmakers were spurred into trying to improve transparency and ethics in the Statehouse. A decade later, most of those efforts have faded.
In 2006, the state created its first ever stand-alone ethics commission and hired an aggressive executive director, Bruce Androphy, from out of state to set it up. Within three years, Androphy was fired amid hostility from lawmakers and some commissioners appointed by the House and Senate speakers. And the Legislature soon passed a law merging the ethics panel into the campaign finance registry.
“He was turning it more into a police state, and going and looking for violations just to justify his position,” said Republican Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, who sponsored the merger law in 2009. “All I could see was just another layer of bureaucracy costing us an arm and a leg.”
Ketron, who recently had to repay the state more than $17,000 in reimbursements after WTVF-TV reported he had billed both his campaign and the state for the same travel, downplayed any benefit to himself for having a less aggressive ethics commission run by longtime Executive Director Drew Rawlins.
“As soon as I realized it, I paid it back the next morning,” Ketron said. “And Drew was fine with that.”
Androphy, who now administers a federal ethics program in North Carolina, said in a phone interview that he harbors no hard feelings about how his tenure ended in Tennessee.
“If you look at the ethics business, longevity is not great. They’re hard jobs to have,” he said. “Everybody loves you when you say yes, but when you say no to something and people get upset.”
The Tennessee Waltz scandal ushered in several new reporting requirements about spending by lobbyists and their employers, and for more detailed disclosures about where lawmakers and local elected officials earn their income. Androphy oversaw placing much of that information online.
Even though he had a rocky relationship with several board members, Androphy said he was proud that the panel issued 25 advisory opinions on ethics questions while he was the executive director.
“One of the better things a commission can do is just put out advice,” he said.
In the six years since Androphy’s departure, the commission has issued just two advisory opinions.
And when the National Rifle Association asked for an opinion this year whether the gun rights group could give free tickets to a country music and comedy show during its annual convention in Nashville, the ethics commission couldn’t agree and declined to issue an opinion either way.
Rawlins, the ethics commission’s current executive director, said the relative dearth of opinions can be traced to early uncertainty about the ethics law. There just haven’t been many advisory opinions requested since then, he said.
“Everyone is more comfortable with the statute now so we get less questions than in the beginning,” Rawlins said.
Sen. Doug Overbey, a Maryville Republican, was a member of the House when the arrests were made. He remembered arriving at the Legislative Office complex and being pulled into then-Speaker Jimmy Naifeh’s office.
“He said, ‘Some of your colleagues are being arrested right now,'” Overbey said. “It was just a dark and sad day.”
Overbey said the frustration with the state’s enhanced ethics standards may stem from that the remaining lawmakers hadn’t done anything wrong to deserve the extra scrutiny.
“If somebody’s going to violate them, they’re going to violate them regardless of how strict they are,” he said.
Democratic Rep. John Deberry of Memphis said the convictions cast a shadow over other lawmakers who don’t deserve the scrutiny.
“Tennessee Waltz opened Pandora’s Box to assuming that all politicians are dishonest, and that they’re all up to something, and that they’re all trying to get something for nothing,” Deberry said. “I think we have a lot of good people here now.”