A prominent voucher advocate who previously registered as a Tennessee lobbyist paid for a private plane in November 2015 to take House Speaker Beth Harwell, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and others on trips to visit North Carolina private schools, reports The Tennessean.
Dean, a Nashville Democrat, and Kara Owen, spokeswoman for Harwell, a Nashville Republican, confirmed the two leaders went on the trip.
Lee Barfield, a well-known local attorney, former lobbyist and voucher advocate, said he organized the trip and paid for the twin-engine propeller plane the group used. Barfield also said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick and others were on the trip.
House Ethics Committee Chairman Steve McDaniel said he went on a different trip with Barfield in September 2015 to the same school in North Carolina. Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, and then-Rep. Mike Harrison said they also went on that trip.
State campaign and ethics laws have loopholes that allow most people to pay for trips and other gifts for lawmakers to keep them from the public. Owen said this is the type of trip Harwell says lawmakers should be required to disclose.
McCormick also said lawmakers should be required to report such trips.
“The speaker maintains her position that full disclosure and transparency is best for the public, and she, along with others who have expressed support, intend to make improvements to the law,” Owen said in an email.
The Tennessean recently detailed previous trips taken by lawmakers that were paid for by politicos. In 2011, wealthy GOP donor Andy Miller paid for six lawmakers to visit Europe in order to learn about “radical Islam.” In 2014, voucher advocate Mark Gill allowed five lawmakers — including the recently expelled Jeremy Durham — to stay at his Alabama seaside condominium, organizing the trip to watch the movie “A Man for All Seasons” and paying for deep sea fishing.
Right now, state law only bans gifts from registered lobbyists, and people only need to register with the state if they are paid to lobby. Gill is on the board of directors for the Tennessee Federation for Children, a pro-voucher advocacy group, but he says he is not paid by the group and therefore doesn’t meet the legal definition of a lobbyist.
Barfield is on the board of directors for the American Federation for Children, the national arm of the same pro-voucher advocacy group. He has registered as a lobbyist in the past, for clients including Cracker Barrel, the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform and others.
However, he was not registered as a lobbyist at the time he paid for Harwell and Dean to go on the trip, according to state documents.
“I’m just a citizen. This was in 2015. My understanding of the law, and the rules at the time, is that as a citizen, I am permitted to take these officials if they want to go on a fact-finding trip,” Barfield told The Tennessean on Tuesday.