About the same time that the most despicable figure in recent Tennessee political history was found dead in a prison cell last week, a small group of folks gathered in the state House chamber to remember a man they saw as one of the most admirable and respected figures in that history.
I never knew William L. “Dick” Barry, who during tumultuous times presided over 98 other representatives in that ornate chamber as House speaker for four years, from 1963 to 1967, then served as right-hand man to Gov. Buford Ellington and then as mentor and adviser — plus, at least once, also as a backstage organizer of an unorthodox bipartisan coalition. He died quietly, aged 88, in the town of Lexington, Tenn., where he was born and where — in accord with his instructions — no formal funeral was held.
But I trust the judgment of those who did know him, including members of the mostly gray-haired bipartisan coalition that gathered Wednesday. Based on them, and the commentary of others, he was a remarkable and insightful man of great intellect with perhaps even more remarkable modesty.
Wednesday was an emotional day for the Burks family as they learned the about the death of the man convicted of the murder of one of their influential family members, reports the Cookeville Herald-Citizen. Byron “Low Tax” Looper was found unresponsive in his jail cell late Wednesday morning in Wartburg in East Tennessee, where he was serving life in prison for the 1998 murder of state Senator Tommy Burks.
“We’ve got a lot of different emotions running right now,” Kim Blaylock, Tommy Burks daughter, said Wednesday afternoon a few hours after the news broke.
Blaylock found out when the TBI came by her office when they couldn’t reach her mother, state Sen. Charlotte Burks.
“They wanted to tell her before it came out in the media,” she said. “It’s been an emotional day for all of us.”
Charlotte Blaylock Looper, granddaughter, said on Facebook, “I would like to say thank you very much to everyone for the calls, messages and prayers. It is very nice to know my family and I have been blessed with so many supportive friends.”
Bill Gibson was the district attorney at the time of the murder and prosecuted Looper.
“It was the highest profile case that I ever handled as DA,” he said. “I’m just feeling a lot of mixed emotions at the news of his death. We lived that case for many months. We knew he would die in prison one day.”
Deputy District Attorney Tony Craighead was on the prosecuting team with Gibson and feels this is the closure of one of the most tragic cases in Tennessee history.
“I’m proud of the fact that I had a part in putting him in prison, although I can never take satisfaction in that because of Senator Burks’ death,” he said. “I knew Tommy. He was a wonderful man. It was a horrible tragedy. I’ve been prosecuting cases for 21 years now and I’ve done dozens of murder cases, and this was one of the most well-investigated and complete cases I’ve ever been involved in.”
Now that Looper’s dead, Craighead said maybe it will be a time to remember all the good that Burks did.
About two hours before Byron “Low Tax” Looper was found dead in a prison cell Wednesday morning, he reportedly assaulted a pregnant female counselor, according to the Chattanooga TFP. An incident report from the Morgan County Correctional Complex reveals what happened in the hours before the death of Looper, who was serving a life sentence in East Tennessee for assassinating his political opponent, Sen. Tommy Burks, in 1998.
The incident report accuses Looper of hitting the counselor, who was 34 weeks pregnant, in the head about 8:55 a.m. Wednesday. Guards responded to the assault and restrained Looper, the report states, “with the least amount of force necessary.”
….The report states that earlier that morning Looper was standing nearby when his counselor and a prison unit manager were talking about a request he had made. That’s when, authorities say, he held his hands out and hit the counselor on both sides of her head, knocking off her glasses.
The report doesn’t specify the request Looper made, but two sources said Looper recently had been told he was going to be placed back in the prison’s general population, and he didn’t want that because he was afraid of being hurt.
Looper, who legally changed his middle name to “Low Tax,” ran against Burks, a popular Democrat, in 1998.
Burks, who had held office in Tennessee for 28 years, was found slumped over in his truck on his farm in Monterey on Oct. 19, 1998, shot near his left eye. Looper was charged in the crime and convicted of first-degree murder.
Byron (Low Tax) Looper, convicted of the first-degree murder of state Sen. Tommy Burks, died this morning in Morgan County Correctional Complex, reports the News Sentinel. Looper, 48, was found unresponsive inside his cell in Wartburg, according to a news release from the communications director for the Tennessee Department of Correction.
He was pronounced dead at 11:10 a.m. He was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for Burks’ murder.
TDOC Commissioner Derrick Schofield asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to assume the lead into the investigation of Looper’s death, according to the news release. District Attorney General Russell Johnson has approved the request.
Johnson said Wednesday afternoon details are sketchy and unconfirmed, but he was told guards performed what he was told was a “full level cell extraction” and Looper had to be contained.
The DA said he was told Looper was treated at the prison’s medical unit and was then put in an isolation cell. Looper was found dead about an hour later, Johnson said he was told.
Johnson said he notified state Sen. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey, of the death of her husband’s murderer.
Looper was convicted of first-degree murder in the assassination on Oct. 19, 1998, of Burks, a 28-year veteran of the state Legislature. Looper, running as a Republican, was Democrat Burks’ political opponent in that year’s election.
Looper officially changed his middle name from Anthony to (Low Tax) in 1996, and was elected as Putnam County Tax Assessor that year.
Two Tennessee state lawmakers partly responsible for helping oversee the scandal-gripped Upper Cumberland Development District can count on one hand the number of board meetings they’ve collectively attended in the last two years, reports Andrea Zelinski. Attendance records for meetings of UCDD’s Board of Directors and its Executive Committee dating back to 2010 show that Rep. Charles Curtiss attended one meeting in that time and Sen. Charlotte Burks made two appearances.
“We can’t always break loose” from prior engagements to attend UCDD meetings, Curtiss, D-Sparta, said in his Capitol Hill office during a recent interview with TNReport.
…UCDD’s executive director, Wendy Askins, and her deputy, Larry Webb, were recently placed on administrative leave after a WTVF NewsChannel 5 investigation revealed Askins had moved in to the agency’s million-dollar “Living the Dream” assisted living facility for needy seniors.
NewsChannel 5′s UCDD series has also raised questions not just about the “Living the Dream” facility, but management of the agency in general. UCDD doled out thousands of dollars for campaign events, booze, personal gifts and other potentially suspicious reimbursements under Askins’ leadership, WTVF reported.
After the WTVF “Living the Dream” story first broke last month, UCDD board members who previously voted for or vocally defended taxpayer-spending on the plush estate — or signed off on other curious agency spending — claimed they were duped into acquiescence by Askins and a UCDD auditor, whom board members now allege was incompetent.
Curtiss has missed every meeting since 2010 except this year’s Jan. 19 meeting, where board members voted to revise the official minutes from a previous meeting which occurred on Feb. 16, 2010 regarding discussions they’d had about the “Living the Dream” project. Curtiss was one of 16 members who voted “yes” on the revisions, which involved retroactively approving $300,000 for “Living the Dream,” even though he wasn’t at the 2010 meeting in question.
A number of Tennessee lawmakers are now calling for a thoroughgoing probe of UCDD by state auditors. The situation is raising concerns among lawmakers that this board, and possibly others like it, risk being poor stewards of government money and deserve focused legislative investigation as well
News release from Senate Republican Caucus:
(NASHVILLE, TN), November 30, 2011 — State Senators Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and Charlotte Burks (D-Monterey) today announced the introduction of a bill that will ensure 8th graders have learned the material necessary to start high school. Senate Bill 2156 will end the practice of social promotion for 8th graders. Social promotion is the practice of passing students to the next grade level even though those students have not mastered the material.
The bill expands upon Public Chapter Number 351 by Sen. Burks, which passed last year and ended the practice of social promotion for third graders. The legislation is the eighth in a series of announcements by Kelsey in his “12 for ’12” initiative for the next legislative session, which is set to reconvene January 10, 2012.
“Our high school students in Tennessee must enter the 9th grade with the skills they need to succeed,” said Sen. Kelsey. “Passing students regardless of their test scores sets these children up for failure. It denies them the quality education they deserve.”
Currently, over 20,000 students in grades 4 through 8 are promoted to the next grade every year without demonstrating a basic understanding of the curriculum or the skills tested by the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, the end of year test administered in grades 3 through 8. Approximately 1,600 of those students are promoted from 8th to 9th grade.
Florida, which has proven a leader in education results, passed a similar bill in 2002. Students there who repeated third grade performed better than they would have if they had been passed to a higher grade. The improvement was measurable within only two years, according to a Colorado University study. The practice has also helped reduce racial gaps in education. Latino students in Florida now outperform all students in Tennessee.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A special Tennessee legislative committee has unanimously voted for Sen. Charlotte Burks to maintain her District 15 Senate seat after allegations of voting irregularities in last year’s election.
The Monterey Democrat beat Republican Gary Steakley by 183 votes.
Steakley alleged voting machines were tampered with in two separate precincts in Putnam County and that the county’s election commission was incompetent in its handling of the election.
But the special ad hoc committee voted 5-0 after hearing testimony from both sides Thursday that Steakley failed to meet his burden of proof that “fraud or illegality so permeated the conduct of the election as to render it incurably uncertain.”
State Senate District 15 includes Cumberland, White, Putnam, Overton, Jackson and Pickett counties. UPDATE: The Cookeville Herald-Citizen has a detailed account of the proceedings with quotes from the participants.
The Senate approved 26-6 Thursday legislation projected to save large telecommunications companies $16 million in access fees they now pay to small telephone exchanges and companies.
The bill, SB598, now goes to the House, where approval is also expected now that the opposing sides have agreed to a compromise. Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, proclaimed the bill “consumer friendly” and “part of a long period of transition arising out of deregulation” of the telecommunications industry.
Those voting no were senators who have small telephone companies in their districts that will see a shift of funds they now receive to the bigger companies. The bill will reduce the access fee from an average of seven cents per minute to two cents per minute.
As introduced, the four-year phasing in of reductions would have begun immediately. The compromise version puts off the start of the phase-in until April 1, 2012, which Norris said would give the small companies a longer “glide path” to adjust for the decreased revenue.
Sen. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey, one of those voting no, said AT&T, a leading proponent of the bill, refused to guarantee that the savings would go to benefit customers.
“We’re punishing our rural ratepayers. Their phone bills are going to go up, some of them by $10 a month,” she said.
A special committee reviewing the close election of state Senator Charlotte Burks agreed Monday to a modified complaint – one that alleges the Putnam County Election Commission didn’t hold a fair election, reports WPLN. Republican Gary Steakley lost the November election to incumbent Charlotte Burks by less than 200 votes. He protested, claiming Burks had acted improperly. This week Steakley’s attorney, Gary Blackburn, changed that complaint.
“The complaint alleges improper or incompetent performance of the election itself.”
The Steakley campaign still contends that Charlotte Burks improperly entered two polling places while voting was underway – a violation of election law. But now Steakley says the Putnam County Election Commission dropped the ball and says the election was so bad that it should be re-held.
Meanwhile Burks’ attorney, Craig Fickling, says the election results are clear. “There is no such thing as a perfect election.