The Tennessee Ethics Commission voted Monday to hold a hearing on whether veteran political operative Tom Ingram violated state lobbying laws along with one of his associates at The Ingram Group and one of their clients.
Ingram, political consultant to Gov. Bill Haslam as well as U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, and Marcille Durham, president of The Ingram Group, have acknowledged they failed to register as lobbyists for Hillsborough Resources Ltd., which wants to mine coal on Catoosa Wildlife Management Area near Crossville.
The Commission discussed Monday what action to take after receiving two letters and a check for $600 to cover two years of lobbyist registration fees for Ingram and Durham. The two also met with members of the agency staff last week.
“I think we – and the state of Tennessee – are due an explanation of what happened here,” said James S. Stranch III, chairman of the commission.
The commission voted 4-0 to hold a “show cause hearing,” which basically gives those suspected of violating the law an opportunity to explain why they should not be subject to a civil penalty. One member, John Gregory Hardeman, recused himself from the vote, saying he knew both Ingram and Durham.
By Travis Lollar, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A federal judge overseeing changes at the state Department of Children’s Services expressed cautious optimism Monday that the agency’s new leadership can resolve some of its problems.
The tone of the hearing marked a decided change from a January hearing where U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell expressed frustration that the agency seemed to be moving backward and concern for the safety of the children in its care.
That hearing took place during a public outcry over the agency’s inability to say how many of the children it had tried to help had died or nearly died over the past two years.
DCS Commissioner Kate O’Day resigned a few days later and was replaced by Interim Commissioner Jim Henry, who was in the courtroom Monday.
Campbell said that Henry “seems to have developed a new tone at the agency, and that’s a good step.”
The agency was in federal court to report on its progress toward meeting the goals of a 2001 settlement with the child advocacy group Children’s Rights.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Opponents of a proposal to allow communities to hold referendums on whether to allow wine to be sold in grocery stores argued Monday that the votes could do more harm than good.
The Senate State and Local Government Committee heard from opponents and supporters during a nearly two-hour meeting. The measure would leave it to voters in cities and counties to decide whether to expand wine sales beyond liquor stores.
A full committee vote on Tuesday will decide whether the measure advances or fails for yet another year. While allowing wine sales in supermarkets and convenience stores enjoys strong public support, it is strongly opposed by the liquor industry, package stores and religious groups.
Randy Davis, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, told the panel that he fears putting the wine measure before voters would have consequences similar to a recent campaign over allowing liquor-by-the drink sales in Pigeon Forge.
“Right now Pigeon Forge is polarized, families torn apartment, friendships ruined, because in our small communities they are battling over this liquor-by-the drink issue,” he said. “And the same thing is going to happen.”
Davis said lawmakers should stop short of putting more liquor issues on the ballot on the basis of convenience.
“We don’t know where this idea of convenience is going to lead us, we don’t know what the next step is,” he said. “Others before you have not put it at the feet of the voters to have wine in liquor stores and I beg of you not to take it there.”
Republican Sen. Janice Bowling of Tullahoma, who declined to give her position on the bill after the meeting, told Davis that several issues will affect her decision.
“As a teetotaling Baptist myself, I can assure that my vote will not be based on convenience, it’s going to be based on Tennesseans and what I’m hearing from my constituents my district,” she said.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker lived up to his reputation as a moderate Republican on Wednesday, reports Chris Carroll. Corker is characterized as “probing but not slamming” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing over last year’s attacks in Benghazi, Libya. Unlike various colleagues, Corker, the committee’s top Republican, didn’t say he would have fired Clinton or that her testimony was unacceptable in response to questions about the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks that killed four Americans, including an ambassador.
Tennessee’s junior senator suggested using the incident to modify America’s approach to North Africa and the Middle East.
“I think it’s an opportunity for us … as a committee, but also as a country, to develop a foreign policy that reflects the dynamics of the region as they really are today,” Corker said.
…While Corker panned the security situation at Benghazi as “a denial of the world today” and its political aftermath as “all that’s wrong with Washington,” the former Chattanooga mayor mostly struck a conciliatory tone. In a question to Clinton, Corker said there were “systemic deficiencies” in Libya and asked her to “mention one reform” since then. Clinton replied that she’s changing department policy and lobbyng Congress for more money for security.
At one point, Corker thanked Clinton for her service, friendship and transparency.
“All Republicans were respectful and most praised her service,” National Journal wrote in a blog post after the hearing. “At times you wouldn’t have known the party affiliation of the member who was speaking — especially when it came to the courtly ranking member, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee.”
By Travis Lollar, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessean newspaper and a group of Tennessee news organizations have asked a judge to open records from the Department of Children’s Services, arguing that the public needs information that would reveal how the state handled cases where children they had investigated died or nearly died.
First Amendment attorney Robb Harvey argued Tuesday in Davidson County Chancery Court that Tennessee’s public records law requires the agency to disclose its files on 151 children who have died since 2009. The DCS had investigated the children and confirmed neglect or abuse in 47 cases.
“The public has a strong interest in knowing what has happened to these children,” Harvey said. “They were either in state custody or DCS had an investigative record on them. They are our most vulnerable citizens, and DCS is an important agency. Without these records, there is no public accountability here.”
Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter disagreed that state law requires the records to be open. She said the law requires the department to provide limited information about the deaths.
By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Department of Children’s Service has been reporting to a federal court for more than a decade on how it is handling foster care, yet it faces no such scrutiny of its handling of children suffering from abuse or neglect.
The state reports that 120 children investigated by the Department of Children’s Services after reports of abuse or neglect died between 2009 and 2011. There were 31 more deaths during the first half of 2012, DCS says.
DCS refuses to divulge anything but bare details about the deaths, such as the child’s age, gender and home county. It won’t release what actions it took in the cases. DCS even keeps the names of the children who died secret.
The agency’s refusal to disclose its case records to the public is being challenged in court by a coalition of 12 news media organizations, led by The Tennessean newspaper. A hearing on the challenge is set for Tuesday.
A public records lawsuit by the coalition seeks to open the files on the children who died, arguing that “the public has a strong interest in knowing what actions DCS took — or failed to take — in order to protect them.” The group that filed the challenge includes The Associated Press and newspapers and broadcasters in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville.
Commissioner Kate O’Day has said privacy concerns about the children are the motivation for keeping details about their cases secret. The confidentiality requirements are “not to protect DCS, they’re really to protect the families,” she told The Tennessean.
Gov. Bill Haslam has said he agrees with the legal analysis by state attorneys that Tennessee isn’t required to release detailed information in the event of child deaths.
That stance is in contrast to other states, where judges, lawmakers and state officials have decided greater transparency improves child welfare agency performance or is required by public records laws.
News release from Administrative Office of the Courts:
Nashville, Tenn. – In a unanimous opinion, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated the trial court’s judgment awarding a Memphis teacher back pay and damages after the board failed to comply with the Teacher Tenure Act when it dismissed her.
Saundra Thompson, a tenured teacher in the Memphis City Schools, was terminated by the school board in April 2007 for failing to return to work after taking extended sick time. The board did not provide written charges or an opportunity for a hearing prior to the termination.
Ms. Thompson filed suit alleging violation of the Tenure Act and right to due process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United State Constitution. She was granted summary judgment and awarded reinstatement, back pay, damages and legal fees of $325,419. On appeal by the school board, the Court of Appeals remanded the case after it determined a factual dispute existed as to whether Ms. Thompson requested more sick leave prior to her termination, or whether she forfeited her tenure by making no such request.
The Supreme Court, in its holding today, reverses the Court of Appeals decision and affirms the trial court’s summary judgment, determining that, although a tenured teacher’s failure to return from sick leave may constitute cause for termination, there is no statute authorizing a board of education to deem it a constructive resignation or a forfeiture of tenure. The Court notes that by dismissing Ms. Thompson without providing her with written charges or an opportunity for a hearing, the defendant board of education violated her rights under the Tennessee Teacher Tenure Act and her constitutional right to due process of law.
To read the Saundra Thompson v. Memphis City Schools Board of Education opinion, authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark, visit the opinions sections of TNCourts.gov.
The Tennessee Supreme Court on Thursday ordered election officials to accept Memphis’ library photo identification cards for voting purposes through the Nov. 6 general election if the voter is otherwise properly registered, reports Richard Locker. And the Shelby County Election Commission has already ordered its polling staff to comply immediately, said chairman Robert Meyers.
“The instructions are to accept as valid the Memphis photo library cards, which means those voters that present with a Memphis library photo ID would then be allowed to vote on the machines,” Meyers said. “And any voter who has cast a provisional paper ballot with a Memphis photo library ID would not need to do anythin additional (for their vote to be counted).”
The election commission said that through Wednesday’s voting, only 19 people had been forced to cast provisional paper ballots because of issues relating to photo ID, including but not limited to those with Memphis library photo IDs. That’s out of more than 190,000 people attempting to vote so far, or 0.01 percent.
The state’s high court decided to accept the state’s request for permission to appeal last week’s state Court of Appeals ruling that upheld the constitutionality of Tennessee’s voter photo ID law. But the ruling also ruled that the city-issued library photo ID cards are acceptable for voting by properly registered voters. The state, which opposes the city-issued cards, appealed that provision of the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
Under the provisions of the appeal process the state used, the Court of Appeals’ order would normally be stayed, or delayed, until the appeal is decided. “However, the right to vote has profound constitutional significance,” the Supreme Court order issued Thursday morning said.
“In light of the impending general election on November 6, 2012, the Court has determined that the stay should be lifted for the limited purpose of ordering the defendants (Secretary of State) Tre Hargett and (State Election Coordinator) Mark Goins to immediately advise the Shelby County Election Commission to accept, for the November 6, 2012 general election and until otherwise ordered by this Court, the photo library cards issued by the City of Memphis Public Library as acceptable ‘evidence of identification’ as provided in” the state voter photo ID law.
After the Court of Appeals ruling last week, state election officials told the Shelby County Election Commission to allow registered voters who present the library photo cards to vote on paper provisional ballots but not regular touch-screen voting machines. State officials said that if the Court of Appeals ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court — or if the voters presented proper photo ID identified in the state statute within by two days after the Nov. 6 election — the provisional ballots would be counted. But if the Supreme Court overturned the ruling and determined that the library cards were not accepted, the provisional ballots would not be counted unless the voter presented acceptable photo ID by Nov. 8.
Senate Democrats have asked the chairman of the Senate State and Local Government Committee, Republican Sen. Ken Yager of Harriman, to open the committee for a hearing on voting irregularities. Yager replied that it’s not necessary.
Here’s an exchange of news releases on the matter: News release from Senate Democratic Caucus:
NASHVILLE – Democratic legislative leaders have renewed calls for a hearing on voting irregularities before early voting begins for the November elections.
That election was fraught with issues. While Davidson County has decided not to use the electronic poll books again, other issues remain unresolved by state elections officials.
Voters are still coming forward with issues. Some received the wrong ballot, and others were falsely told they were at the wrong precinct. County and state officials disagree over who is ultimately responsible for elections.
“It could all happen again,” the letter states. “It is critical we hold a hearing on these issues before early voting begins.”
The letter calls for on State and Local Committee Chairman Sen. Ken Yager to hold a hearing on the issue. It was sent Monday by the Democratic members of that committee, Sens. Thelma Harper, Joe Haynes and Lowe Finney.
“Our state has put considerable effort into fighting voter fraud, a problem that barely exists,” the letter states. “Now we have irregularities in our largest cities that could open a door to election fraud, and it is time we act. We must do our part to return integrity to our elections.”
Read the complete letter HERE.
— Statement from Sen. Ken Yager, issued through Senate Republican Caucus:
(NASHVILLE, TN), September 25, 2012 — “There are two state agencies, the Division of Elections and the State Election Commission, which are charged with the responsibility of reviewing this matter and making any recommendation for changes. These are the most appropriate bodies to review any issues related to the August election.”
“The State Election Commission is a bipartisan board whose members are appointed by the General Assembly as recommended by the Republican and Democratic caucuses. ”
“Secretary of State Tre Hargett and Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins requested an independent audit by the office of the Comptroller of Treasury to fully investigate the matter.”
“Both of these agencies are currently discharging their responsibilities fully and appropriately. I have confidence that they will make any changes needed after reviewing all of the facts; therefore, I see no reason to duplicate their work at taxpayer’s expense.”
By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — A federal judge in Chattanooga said Thursday that he needs more information to decide whether to halt prayers at Hamilton County Commission meetings.
U.S. District Judge Harry S. “Sandy” Mattice heard arguments as two local men sought to bar the prayers at the start of the government meetings while their lawsuit is argued in court.
Mattice set an Aug. 8 deadline for the parties to submit briefs on the constitutionality of the practice.
“I do believe the community deserves an answer on this,” Mattice said, indicating he would likely rule early next month on the request for a temporary injunction.
Plaintiff Tommy Coleman testified Thursday that he felt excluded from the meetings because of the prayers.
“I felt excluded, unwelcome, out of place,” Coleman told the court.
After the hearing, plaintiffs’ attorney Robin Flores said he was pleased by the outcome.
“If he had made a knee-jerk ruling from the bench, I would have been shocked,” Flores said.
The other man pressing the lawsuit, Brandon Jones, told reporters afterward he is optimistic.
“I really felt we presented our points well and that the judge is going to take our arguments into consideration,” Jones said.
Earlier this month, commission members unanimously approved a formal policy that invites clergy to offer prayer.
On Monday in Knoxville, the Knox County Commission voted 10-1 in adopting a written policy on public prayer before their meetings.