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Farewell

The News Sentinel has decided to cease publication of this blog, launched on Jan. 28, 2009, effective today, Sept. 30, 2016.

I hope it has helped inform readers about Tennessee state government and politics during that time and anticipate continuing efforts to do so otherwise in the days ahead, including a continuation of working with the fine folks at the News Sentinel.

Thank you for reading.

Tom

Judge revokes bond, sends Rutherford sheriff to jail

A federal magistrate Wednesday revoked bond for Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold Wednesday and ordered him to jail because of new domestic assault charges brought while he is awaiting trial on corruption charges, reports the Daily News Journal.

“I find sufficient probable cause that Robert Arnold committed (domestic assault against his wife),” U.S. Magistrate Judge Alistair Newbern ruled Wednesday morning.

She also ordered that Arnold be escorted out of her courtroom by a U.S. Marshall, who placed handcuffs on the sheriff’s wrists held behind his back.

Newbern revoked Arnold’s $250,000 bond in the JailCigs case and ruled probable cause exists that the Rutherford County sheriff was involved in a domestic assault against his wife as well as witness tampering.

However, she left opened the possibility of him being released if he resigns from office and agrees to stay away from his wife and Rutherford County deputies.

Second-in-command Chief Deputy Randy Garrett will take charge of the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office while Arnold is in jail, County Mayor Ernest Burgess said.

The sheriff will continue to receive his annual salary of $127,078 while behind bars, Burgess said.

“That’s the way I read the state statute,” the mayor said during a Wednesday morning phone interview before Arnold’s federal court hearing in Nashville. “He’s still the sheriff until he is convicted of a felony. When that occurs, he is removed as sheriff.”

State law does provide that an acting sheriff can be in charge whenever the sheriff is incapacitated, such as having to be detained while awaiting trial, the mayor said.

In Arnold’s case, he and his uncle John Vanderveer, and Joe Russell, the Sheriff’s Office accounting chief, face a 13-count federal indictment accusing them of illegally profiting from inmates through the sale of JailCigs, an electronic cigarettes business.

Cooper balks at naming courthouse for Thompson

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – All but one of Tennessee’s congressional delegation members want the new federal courthouse in Nashville to be named after the late actor-politician Fred Thompson, but the lone holdout says there’s no need to rush.

Rep. Jim Cooper, a Nashville Democrat who lost to Thompson in the 1994 Senate race, is the only one of the 11 delegation members not to sign on to legislation to dedicate the building to the Lawrenceburg native who died last year at age 73.

“I am not against Fred Thompson,” Cooper said in an email. “He beat me fair and square decades ago. I am not against it being named for a Republican.

“But is rushing through a bill at the last minute in Congress, without any public input or discussion, the best we can do?”

Cooper said it should be up people in Middle Tennessee to decide the name of the courthouse that’s being built after years of delays. And if they end up choosing Thompson, Cooper said he’d have “no problem” with that.

Thompson was a Tennessee-trained lawyer, prosecutor, hard-driving Senate counsel during the Watergate hearings, movie and TV actor and even a fleeting presidential hopeful in 2008. He commanded audiences with a booming voice, folksy charisma and a 6-foot-6 frame.

Thompson starred the “Law & Order” TV series and appeared in at least 20 motion pictures including “In the Line of Fire,” ”The Hunt for Red October,” ”Die Hard II” and “Cape Fear,” while also fostering a lobbying career in Washington. Upon his return home in early 1990s to run for the Senate, Thompson leased what would become his signature red truck to drive around the state to cast himself as a man of the people.

Cooper at the time derided the truck as a cynical prop to deflect attention from Thompson’s inside-the-Beltway status, arguing that his Republican opponent was in fact a “Gucci-wearing, Lincoln-driving, Perrier-drinking, Grey Poupon-spreading millionaire Washington special-interest lobbyist.”

Thompson nevertheless ended up winning more than 60 percent of the vote.

Ministers stage prayerful Nashville protest

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A group of ministers from across Tennessee knelt in the middle of an intersection in Nashville’s tourist district Monday, blocking the street as they prayed for equality and justice.

The protest was one of many across the country challenging the right of religious conservatives to define morality.

It began with a rally on the steps of the state Capitol that happened to coincide with the first day of a specially called three-day legislative session. About 150 people gathered, including home health workers, fast food workers and custodians demanding a $15-an-hour minimum wage as lawmakers filed past.

State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, addressed the crowd saying lawmakers had been warned to look out for protesters.

“This is the people’s house, and it’s time for it to do the people’s business,” he told the crowd.

Thelma Rimmer said she has worked as a custodian at the University of Memphis for 10 years and makes $10.30 an hour.

“Sometimes I have to decide whether to pay the light bill or to buy food, sometimes even rent,” she said. “I want to make a wage where I am able to send my children to college, too.”

The Rev. Andre E. Johnson, with Gift of Life Ministries in Memphis, was one of several ministers at the rally who delivered a petition to Gov. Bill Haslam’s office demanding solutions to issues like persistent poverty and inequality.

“It’s not only unjust; it’s a sin,” he said.

Johnson said many lawmakers feel God called them to serve. “We just want to make sure they’re hearing from the right God,” he said.

After the rally, the group marched to Broadway where they blocked an intersection. The ministers kneeled in the middle of the road while other demonstrators joined hands in a circle around them. They prayed as tourists looked on from nearby honky-tonks, country music blaring into the street.

DUI special session deemed a ‘step backward’

By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration is looking to turn back the clock on an underage drunken driving law that threatened to cost Tennessee $60 million in federal road money.

The law that went into effect in July raised the penalties for driving under the influence by 18- through 20-year-olds. But the change ran afoul of federal zero-tolerance standards for underage drivers by raising the maximum allowable blood alcohol content from 0.02 percent to 0.08 percent.

According to an advance version of legislation the Haslam administration plans to file during a special session that starts next week, the state would eliminate nearly all of the provisions of the new law, returning the 0.02 percent rule and the more lenient penalties for all drivers beneath the legal drinking age.

“From a public policy standpoint, this is obviously a step backward,” said Republican Rep. William Lamberth of Gallatin, the lead sponsor of the original legislation. “But it is a step that will put us in compliance with federal regulation and ensure that that $60 million comes to Tennessee.” Continue reading

TN congressmen plead for $60M fed funding

All 11 members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation have signed a letter asking U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to help the state keep $60 million in highway funds that are in jeopardy because of a new state DUI law, reports Michael Collins.

“Based upon our review of both the state and federal laws and the purpose behind both laws, it seems that both the State of Tennessee and the federal government have the same objective of penalizing impaired driving and that the common sense thing to do is to resolve this matter promptly,” the lawmakers wrote. “We are available to assist in any way that would be helpful.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration informed the state last week it’s in danger of losing the highway money because of the DUI law passed earlier this year.

The law, which took effect July 1, changed the impaired-driver threshold from a blood alcohol content of 0.02 to a blood alcohol content of 0.08 for drivers between 18 and 20.

The change means the state is no longer in compliance with the federal zero tolerance law, which requires states to set 0.02 as the blood-alcohol level allowed for drivers under age 21.

As a result, federal transportation officials say they must withhold 8 percent of federal highway funding from the state. If the state is not in compliance by Oct. 1, it will forfeit $60 million in highway funding.

Tennessee argues it can enforce the 0.08 standard because another state law makes it illegal for anyone under age 21 to possess or consume any alcoholic beverage. Federal officials are expected to decide by Friday if that qualifies as compliance with the federal zero tolerance law.

If they decide it doesn’t, Gov. Bill Haslam would have to call the General Assembly into special session to repeal or modify the new DUI law or petition the federal government for a waiver until the Legislature begins its regular session next January.

“We hope you will work with Tennessee to find a solution that will allow our state to retain desperately needed highway funds,” the state’s congressional lawmakers said in their letter to Foxx.

Shelby County Democratic Party disbanded

The Shelby County Democratic Party was forcibly disbanded Friday, punctuating years of bitter in-fighting that have recently revolved around former chairman Bryan Carson, according to the Commercial Appeal.

Tennessee Democratic Party chairwoman Mary Mancini said she notified SCDP chairman Michael Pope in a letter Friday that she had chosen to “de-certify” the state’s largest county party, effectively disbanding it.

“Shelby County is very valuable to the Democratic party because there are some good and active Democrats in this county,” she said. “The decision was made because the Shelby County Democratic Party was not supporting, engaging and encouraging all those good and active Democrats.”

In the letter, she said the TNDP would work with local Democrats to “determine their own needs, evaluate the effectiveness of past bylaws and leadership, elect officers and executive committee members, and enact reforms that bring in new people and build a strong grassroots organization.”

Corey Strong, a state party executive committee member representing Memphis, said a party whose main purpose was to organize support around electing Democratic candidates had been rendered ineffective by internal issues, as displayed in past elections.

Most recently, county party members have quarrelled about how to handle allegations that former chairman Carson embezzled more than $25,000 in his tenure. At the direction of Mancini, SCDP chairman Pope approved a $6,000 settlement with Carson, even though the county executive committee had already approved a resolution to file charges against Carson, leading to shouting matches at recent committee meetings.

Strong said the party was being disbanded because it wasn’t “living up to its purpose.”

“This is not about an individual,” he said. “This is about a systemic inability to meet the party’s own charter and the minimum requirements of the state party.”

He said state executive committee members from Memphis were the ones who pushed Mancini to decertify the party because they didn’t want the party to “flounder on the local level.”

Carson and his mother, Gale Jones Carson, are both members of the state executive committee.

Strong said the party would be reorganized, possibly as early as November, under the supervision of local elected Democrats. The party’s money would be moved into a trust until the party is reconstituted. A meeting with party stakeholders is scheduled in two weeks, Mancini said.

State museum moves, slowly, toward semi-replacement of Riggins-Ezzell

Eleven months after the decision was made to replace Lois Riggins-Ezzell, 76, as the longtime executive director of the Tennessee State Museum, there is finally a tentative timeline for the future hire to start as work toward a new $160 million state-of the-art museum building is underway.

In a comprehensive Nashville Post update on the the museum situation, Cari Wade Gervin also reports the new tentative timeline is already behind schedule, that initial efforts in seeking applicants for the new executive director’s position drew little or no response and that management experts think it’s a really bad idea to keep Riggins-Ezell on the job after her successor is hired, as planned.

An excerpt: Continue reading

Matheny speech on TNGOP ‘crisis’ spurned

The Tennessee Republican Party Executive Committee took a vote Saturday on whether to let state Rep. Judd Matheny address the body on his belief the party faces a “crisis,” in part over leadership ties to a consulting firm that helped challengers attack him and other incumbents in this year’s primary elections.

The result, according to The Tennessean: 24 voted to let Matheny talk; 35 voted no.

In recent months, Matheny has taken issue with the fact that Southland Advantage – a company founded by Taylor Ferrell, who is the wife of the party’s political director, Walker Ferrell – was once hired by candidates running against Matheny, Rep. Courtney Rogers, R-Goodlettsville, and U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais.

All three lawmakers beat their challengers in the state’s Aug. 4 primary election.

Several party members, including Wilson County Republicans, have called for the firing of Walker Ferrell, as well as party chairman Ryan Haynes and Brent Leatherwood, the state party’s executive director, arguing that they have condoned activity that undermines the work of incumbent Republicans.

…Matheny later told The Tennessean that he hoped to provide SEC members with a packet of information that included a two-page speech, his April letter and other notes about Southland Advantage’s involvement in primary election races.

…“We are here today because we know and the public knows that our party is in crisis,” Matheny wrote in his prepared remarks. “We are at a point where we have to make a choice. We either work to restore our party to one that conducts its business with integrity and based on principles, or we stand by and watch it decline into Obama-like lawlessness.”

… Matheny said the party cannot continue to “buddy up with people of questionable ethical behavior who for their own personal benefit and ambition are willing to lie, cheat and bend the rules until they become unrecognizable.”

Haynes has previously said that no party staff members have been involved in any Republican primaries. In an email sent to SEC members in May, Haynes said the party has a long-standing policy of staying out of primary elections but the bylaws do not prevent “vendors or spouses of staffers from engaging in primaries.”

…Matheny also said Haynes originally told him he could address the SEC but was removed from the agenda during a last minute administrative meeting held Friday night.

Haynes confirmed that the party’s administrative committee voted against Matheny speaking but added that he supported the lawmaker.

“I think it would’ve been in the best interest of the party to allow him to have an opportunity to speak,” he said, adding that he and Matheny disagree on the facts.

Matheny said Haynes has been “very disingenuous” with him, adding that the chairman told him Saturday morning that he would “lobby” for the lawmaker to address the audience. Matheny also said he would only talk to Haynes via email or in public because “I can’t trust him.”

Haynes said he was sorry Matheny felt that way about him and that he believes the lawmaker is “an outstanding conservative legislator.”

Sunday column: Elections a glimmer of hope for Insure TN?

For more than a year, Gov. Bill Haslam has been telling supporters of his failed Insure Tennessee plan that he sees no reason to try again for passage until there’s something to indicate a change in political attitudes toward what critics branded “Obamacare expansion.”

Arguably, some results in the Aug. 4 Republican primary elections are at least a harbinger of change in legislator attitudes, which can be influenced by voter attitudes.

For starters, the most prominent legislative critics of the Haslam plan — Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, and Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown — were both big losers in primary campaigns. They were the House and Senate sponsors, respectively, of a bill they and Americans for Prosperity branded as the “Stop Obamacare Act.” Both had made their efforts major talking points on the campaign trail. Continue reading