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.
Tennessee lawmakers bit off more than they could chew this session when it comes to classroom reform, reports WPLN. “I think we gave the impression that we were forcing a whole lot of stuff down folks’ throats,” says Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis). “And perception is reality.”
DeBerry’s legislation strengthening the state’s so-called “parent trigger law” is one of several major proposals abandoned for the year.
The national lobbying organization Students First is behind the push to make it easier for parents to overthrow the administration of a public school. Lobbyists say the clock ran out as they hashed out details. They promise to bring back the proposal next year.
The education reform that attracted the most lobbying activity this year has also failed.
One advocate was paying 11 lobbyists to push for school vouchers. Several were even running TV ads promoting the use of public education money to pay private school tuition.
….Many of the education proposals that received the most attention barely got off the ground. Sen. Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) gave another go at his so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
The legislation would have required public school employees to alert parents if their child was possibly engaging in homosexual activity.
Liberal groups were incensed. But ultimately Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey probably did more than anyone to put the kibosh on the proposal, saying, “there are some tings that should be left inside the family.”
There were a number of separate proposals allowing teachers to carry guns in class or stationing armed guards in every school.
Chairs of the education committees put off the armed teacher bills, saying they would be lumped together and debated at one time. But before that could happen, Governor Haslam stepped in and molded the most mild version into a shape he could support.
On the state Senate floor last week, Sen. Brian Kelsey brought up a resolution that he explained as putting senators on record as declaring “if the federal government tries to infringe on our rights as American citizens, then we will intervene and fight for those rights.”
This prompted Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris to ask his fellow Republican how the resolution (SR17) differed from perhaps the most prominent of several bills introduced this year to nullify federal laws and subject federal officers to prosecution should they try to enforce them.
The question was a bit of a gibe at Kelsey because Norris knew the answer. A resolution — especially one that faces a vote only in the Senate and not in the House — amounts only to a rhetorical statement.
And the resolution merely expresses the Senate’s “firm intention and resolve to fully marshal the legal resources of the state” to see that any federal laws violating 2nd Amendment rights are challenged in court.
“Are we going to go out and simply start shooting people? No,” said Kelsey, R-Germantown. “When we have disputes we do not resort to warfare and shooting.”
That brought Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, to her feet to declare that her bill (SB250) did not call for shooting federal agents, merely their arrest. As originally drafted, federal officers enforcing gun laws would have faced a felony prosecution, though that was amended to a misdemeanor.
Kelsey took a lead role in killing Beavers’ bill, which declared the state Legislature has authority to nullify federal gun laws and, once nullified, make FBI or ATF agents subject to arrest if they tried to enforce them. If failed after lengthy debate before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Kelsey chairs.
The measure is an example of what some Democrats call “the crazy bills.” Without referring to specific bills, House Speaker Beth Harwell has implored Republicans to steer clear of “fringe” legislation. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey has lamented bills that are “a distraction.” Gov. Bill Haslam has chided media for focusing its reporting on the “craziest legislation.”
At the outset of the 108th General Assembly, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, among others, voiced fear that the new Republican supermajority would “run amok” enacting “all these right-wing extremist bills.”
With just two weeks remaining until the end of the first supermajority session, that has not been the case. Many legislators credit this to the generally quiet efforts of Harwell and Ramsey or, to a lesser extent, Haslam.
By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Correction said he has addressed problems found in a performance audit by the state comptroller’s office that showed at least 82 people who parole officers claimed they checked on were actually dead.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Derrick Schofield talked about the audit and how his department was faring since it took responsibility for certain services in the Board of Parole.
The audit released in October found problems with parole checks that had been reported between January 2011 and May 2012.
Schofield said an internal investigation revealed no wrongdoing by staffers but uncovered problems with a faulty data entry process.
He said the department has since developed procedures for identifying and removing deceased offenders from rosters. This includes using databases that collect information on deaths reported in Tennessee and nationally to cross-reference individuals under supervision.
In a Sunday review of the state parole practices, The Tennessean provides examples of violent offenders going pretty much unsupervised and committing crimes while parole officials were supposedly “supervising” dead offenders.
And some legislators are quoted as saying it’s time for a shakeup. State Rep. Barrett Rich, R-Somerville, who chairs a legislative committee that oversees parole and probation issues…has tried unsuccessfully in the past to abolish parole in Tennessee and said the current state of supervision proves his point.
“I don’t think it’s currently doing what it’s supposed to be doing, what it’s designed to do,” Rich said. “I think it’s a failed experiment.”
An audit released this month accused the Tennessee Board of Parole of not only keeping dead felons under active supervision, but of also falling far short of state guidelines on supervising live felons and failing to adequately punish people who rack up numerous violations.
…House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said Tennessee taxpayers expect better from the state.
“Certainly this is not something that we can tolerate, and it’s not something the taxpayers should tolerate,” Harwell said Friday. “We will expect changes to be made.”
…The Board of Parole blamed the continued supervision failures on increasing caseloads.
“From a historical perspective, the board continued to move forward in addressing supervisory issues in its audits,” said Melissa McDonald, spokeswoman for the Board of Parole. “The board has consistently experienced increases in caseloads as the population served continues to grow.”
She said the number of felons under supervision has increased by 6.1 percent annually for the past 10 years.
It’s a familiar refrain. In 2001, after an audit showed the agency wasn’t fulfilling its supervision duties, it responded by complaining that caseloads had become untenable at 96 felons per parole officer. In 2006, it complained when they reached 100. In 2012, caseloads had grown to 113 for some parole officers.
Rep. Mike Kernell, D-Memphis, said the state legislature deserves some of the blame for not funding more parole officers to address caseloads in the past.
“The parole people kept saying, ‘We’re getting too high of a ratio, too high of a ratio, too high of a ratio,’ and never got the funding that they’ve needed,” he said. “The legislature has to be upset with itself, too.”
Rich laid some of the blame at the feet of Board of Parole Chairman Charles Traughber, who has held the position since 1988 with on-and-off stints at the agency going back to 1972.
“I don’t think that Mr. Traughber specifically is the cause, but I believe that, in and of itself, I would be embarrassed to know that under my watch that this has happened,” he said.
Traughber responded only by saying, “I have the utmost respect for Representative Rich.”
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — An assistant commissioner in the Department of Correction has resigned after an investigation found parole officers reported making checks on dozens of parolees who had been dead for months or years.
Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield said in a letter to lawmakers on Thursday that Gary Tullock, who was in charge of community supervision for the department, turned in his resignation after a state audit released this week found 82 parolees being checked were actually dead. That number has risen to 107 now, Schofield said.
Schofield said lawmakers were incorrectly told two parole officers who falsified records were fired. A review showed they had resigned from state service.
According to The Tennessean, Tullock had worked his way up from a parole officer and been in charge of the program since 2004.
Note: For some background, see TNReport’s account of a legislative hearing and video on Schofield. An excerpt: Assistant Correction Commissioner Gary Tullock said the agency fired two parole officers responsible for much of the faulty reporting on dead offenders, but Schofield said other employees likely contributed to the high number of erroneous reports.
According to the Department of Correction, the state monitors 13,000 offenders on parole and 56,000 people on probation. The state also supervises 7,500 people in community correction, a program that keeps less violent offenders out of prisons.
Overall, that’s 3,175 more offenders under state observation this year than last year, though the number of parole officers has not increased, Tullock said.
However, Schofield said it’s too early to say whether he’ll ask the governor to add to his department’s yearly budget.
“The first thing we say is we’re short-staffed. If you look at and examine how we supervise and how we do things, there’s always opportunities to find resources. If we need those resources, we will present that to the governor,” he told reporters.
At a Wednesday hearing, legislators called it “egregious” that state parole officials claimed they were supervising felons who later turned out to be dead. But what upset them even more, reports the Tennessean, was the fact that two parole officers were not arrested after being caught falsifying some of those dead felons’ files. “Why is that?” asked state Rep. Barrett Rich, R-Somerville, vice chairman of the Government Operations Joint Subcommittee on Judiciary and Government.
Gary Tullock, assistant commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Correction who oversees supervision of the state’s felons, struggled to respond.
“I don’t have a good answer for you, is it a crime –” Tullock began, when Rich cut him off.
“Falsifying documents, certainly state documents, would be a crime,” Rich replied. “And, if that hasn’t been referred to the district attorney general for the county that the offense occurred in, then I think certainly it would be imperative for you to do so.”
Legislators at Wednesday’s subcommittee hearing blasted the Tennessee Board of Parole in light of a critical audit accusing the agency of supervising dead felons, not properly supervising live ones and failing to double-check parole officers’ work through supervisory reviews.
The subcommittee gave the Parole Board a year to correct the problems before auditors return to check on their progress. Lawmakers were unmoved when Charles Traughber, Parole Board chairman, said that was not enough time.
“Knowing that you’re not giving them enough time to resolve all of these findings and make a serious dent in it, it would take Superman to do that,” Traughber complained. “And we don’t have Superman.”
State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, who chairs the subcommittee, offered a blunt reply.
“These findings are of such magnitude that they require an immediate and urgent response,” he said. “So, thank you very much.”
— Note: See also the TNReport rundown, which includes video/
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A state audit of the Board of Probation and Parole found that employees were making annual arrest checks of at least 82 dead parolees. The parolees had been dead anywhere from less than six months to more than 19 years.
In at least two cases, officers completed documents stating that the offenders were still alive.
The audit results were released on Monday.
In a statement on the audit, Comptroller Justin Wilson said, “If parole officers are supervising dead people, this is a waste of taxpayer dollars and makes us wonder about the supervision of parolees living in our communities.”
The audit also found that many probation and parole officers were not completing all the supervision requirements. There were many instances of no evidence that officers tried to contact offenders.
— Note: News release below
While Democrats are calling for a broad, independent investigation into the Department of Children’s Services acknowledgment that 31 children died in the past year while under DCS oversight, The Tennessean reports this email from Gov. Bill Haslam on his own efforts. “The death of one child in Tennessee is too many,” Haslam said in an emailed statement. “I am currently reviewing the data to better understand how we rank with other states when you compare apples to apples in how we’re collecting and accounting for the information. I’m also reviewing historical data for Tennessee.”
…(DCS Commissioner Kate) O’Day urged caution in drawing conclusions about what the child death numbers actually meant.
“It’s important to look at the bigger context for all of these numbers,” O’Day said in a telephone interview Friday.
“Kids are coming to our department in a variety of ways. Some are already injured or medically fragile, and that’s the reason that we are called upon to get involved. And they may subsequently die. So you’ll see those figures, but they don’t mean what at first blush you think they do.”
The so-called “Don’t Say Gay bill,” which perhaps brought more national attention for the Tennessee Legislature than any other piece of legislation, will not be put to a final vote needed for passage, the measure’s House sponsor said Sunday.
The decision by Rep. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, means that SB49 will die with the adjournment of the 107th General Assembly. Legislative leaders hope that will be today.
Hensley said the officials of the Department of Education and the state Board of Education have pledged to send a letter to all Tennessee schools “telling them they cannot teach this subject in grades kindergarten through eight.”
“With that assurance and the opposition of some people who didn’t want to vote on it, I’ve decided simply not to bring it up,” said Hensley.
The bill passed the Senate last year and recently won approval in modified form from the House Education Committee on an 8-7 vote. It needed only the approval of the Calendar Committee, usually a routine matter, to be set for a floor vote.
Hensley said nickname the bill received “really wasn’t what the bill was all about” and contributed to unease of some legislators in voting on the measure. He said the bill could be re-filed next year if there is any indication of “alternate lifestyles” being prompted in Tennessee schools despite the pending letter.
The operative language of the amended version says that in grades K-8 any such classroom instruction, course materials or other informational resources that are inconsistent with natural human reproduction shall be classified as inappropriate for the intended student audience and, therefore, shall be prohibited.”