KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Prosecutors in Knoxville say former Knox County Trustee Mike Lowe paid employees who never performed work.
The Knoxville News Sentinel (http://bit.ly/14wTIJO ) reported documents recently filed in Knox County Criminal Court allege Lowe and two former aides conducted a “continuous larcenous scheme” in which ghost employees were on the payroll.
Lowe, Delbert Morgan and Ray Mubarak face multiple theft charges.
A bill of particulars filed by the district attorney’s office alleges Morgan bilked taxpayers out of nearly $197,000 by not showing up for work over four years.
The newspaper said Gregory P. Isaacs, Lowe’s lawyer, and Tom Dillard, Mubarak’s lawyer, declined comment Tuesday. Jeff Daniel, Morgan’s attorney, could not be reached for comment.
In April 2012, when indictments were returned, Isaacs said Lowe strongly denied the allegations.
House Speaker Beth Harwell has proposed a major overhaul of House rules that includes a limit on the number of bills a lawmaker can file, a move to end “ghost voting” and a realignment of the committee system.
The rule revisions will require approval of the full House on a two-thirds vote after the 108th General Assembly convenes on Jan. 8. They will first be vetted in the House Rules Committee.
Harwell said in a statement that she believes the changes “reflect the will of the body” based on a survey of representatives in the last legislative session.
She said the changes also reflect citizen wishes that state government operate “efficiently and effectively while saving money.”
“While the Congress remains mired in partisan gridlock and continues to waste time, the state Legislture is working toward better government,” Harwell said.
Among the major changes:
–Each representative will be limited to filing 10 bills per year, though with some exceptions. That would be about half the average number of bills filed per representative in the last legislative session, which saw 3,887 House bills filed over the two-year life of the 107th General Assembly.
Not counted toward the 10-bill limit would be legislation filed on behalf of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration, so-called “sunset” bills that extend the life of an existing government agency and bills that apply only to one city or county.
House Speaker Beth Harwell has ordered a review of House rules after a Nashville television station reported on “ghost voting,” wherein several members were shown routinely pushing the desktop vote buttons for others just before the legislature adjourned May 1, according to the Commercial Appeal. One veteran Memphis member, Rep. Lois DeBerry, a Democrat, turned back the $174 daily expense payment for a day in which she was absent but listed as voting “present” on the House floor.
DeBerry said colleagues erroneously assumed she was running late because her office failed to file an absence letter that would have shown her as “excused” on the chamber’s roll-call board.
Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, acknowledged punching the electronic desktop vote buttons of seat mates when they are out for restroom breaks or meetings with constituents outside the chamber.
Officials agree that while voting for colleagues momentarily away from desks on the House and Senate floors is a longstanding tradition, a Nashville television station’s recent report may lead to a crackdown on abuses. The WTVF report included two East Tennessee Republicans trading out parts of long days on the floor and voting for each other for extended periods.
…Chief Clerk Joe McCord said Harwell “has directed me to come up with some proposals to take to the Rules Committee to see if they want to address it and adopt them.”
…In Nashville, House Rule 29 declares, in part, that “All members casting votes by the electronic roll-call machine shall be at their proper desks at the time for voting with the exception of the Speaker and sponsor moving passage of the bill under consideration.” (The speaker presides at the podium and the bill sponsor is usually there explaining the bill.)
But by long-running practice, the rule is in force only when the speaker declares it’s in effect — “going under the rule.” That usually applies on a contentious bill where the outcome is uncertain. Most routine bills that reach the floor pass by heavy majorities, often unanimously, and the outcome is rarely in doubt.
McCord and lawmakers distinguish between casting votes for colleagues away from their desks temporarily and voting for members who are not present at all, which is not supposed to occur.
A comment by House Speaker Beth Harwell on “ghost voting” has been rated “half true” by Politifact Tennessee. The item starts like this: Since the Tennessee General Assembly installed electronic voting systems in the House and Senate chambers more than 20 years ago, lawmakers have often cast votes for an absent colleague – a practice that has been nicknamed “ghost voting.” The old custom got some fresh attention in the last days of the 2012 session when a Nashville television station, WTVF, filmed state representatives using long sticks to sit at their desks and punch voting buttons on the desks of other members who were missing.
Subsequently, House Speaker Beth Harwell offered commentary on the matter in an interview with the station, saying she doesn’t really condone the practice but it is permitted under legislative rules. That’s true. But then the speaker went on to say:
“We’re not like Congress. In Congress, they don’t even have to be on the floor for debates or votes. I require my members to be on the floor.”
Was the speaker speaking the truth in contrasting Congress with the General Assembly in ghost voting?
The full story is HERE.
State Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, tells the Johnson City Press that he was bushwhacked last week by Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 when a reporter suddenly appeared from behind a partition and quizzed him on why his “seat mate” had been casting votes for him in his absence and vice versa. Ford “clocked in” Rep. Dennis Roach, R-Rutledge, and then repeatedly voted for him. Roach cast a dozen votes that session without ever stepping foot in the chambers, and when he showed up late Ford cleared his desk and left for the night, according to the news report.
“She just jumped out from behind a corner and stuck a microphone in my face,” Ford said Wednesday about the reporter. “It pissed me off. I thought it was very unprofessional.”
Ford said he understood why some people might think the voting procedures could be construed as unethical. But he also said there are times — more times than people know — when the House rules regarding attendance and voting procedures are suspended, making these actions both legal and ethical.
“If a guy is not going to be there, I won’t clock them in or vote for them,” he said. “That’s stealing. When we’re under the rules, I absolutely follow them to the letter.”
…”That’s an accepted practice,” he said. “And even when you’re in the well (podium), somebody has to vote for you. Everybody down there, everybody that’s ever been there, and everybody that ever will be there is going to do it. Sometimes the Sergeant at Arms will tell you there’s someone in the lobby. Sometimes you may be talking with the governor. We’re out from under the rule most of the time. I don’t think people realize.”
Previous post HERE.
The practice of state legislators casting votes for absent colleagues is known as “ghost voting,” reports WTVF-TV, and “happens in the House chambers probably a lot more often than you think.” Last year, Tennessee lawmakers passed the controversial voter ID law aimed at eliminating voter fraud.
At the time the legislation was up for consideration, Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, told other House members, “You should be who you say you are when you go vote.”
But when it comes to their own votes, we found House members not only vote for themselves, they also vote for others who are not in their seats. And, sometimes, believe it or not, they even vote for members who are not even there.
Political watchdog and radio talk show host Steve Gill had no idea this was going on.
“I think this is a fraud on the taxpayers,” Gill told NewsChannel 5 Investigates. “I think this is a fraud on the people of Tennessee.
“That’s not what they were sent there to do.”
But Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, insists it’s no big deal.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Ford, “You don’t think this is important?”
“No,” he replied. “This is neither illegal or immoral. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s done all of the time.”
It’s such a common practice in the House, in fact, that many lawmakers have sticks they use to reach each others’ voting buttons.