State Sen. Doug Overbey is fighting back against the suggestion he was involved in some secret deal to sneak liquor into Pigeon Forge, reports The Mountain Press. He says the accusations made by some in that city are “pure fiction.” Though he was not named specifically, businessman Jess Davis leveled allegations during a recent City Commission meeting that a “Tennessee senator” was in on closed-door meetings Davis claims were held on an end-around for spirits. Overbey is the only person who represents Sevier County in the state’s Senate and, like everyone else Davis claims or suggests was part of the gathering, vehemently denies there was such a meeting.
“I have hatched no plan and I have not been part of hatching some plan,” Overbey told The Mountain Press. “My consistent position has been that the citizens’ vote in May needs to be respected. I could not support or go along with anything other than that and, if it’s desire, a new referendum on this issue.”
CHATTANOOGA (AP) — Officials with the state Education Department and the Hamilton County School Board are pointing blame at each other for declaring a recent meeting closed to the public.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports that public notice of Thursday’s meeting between the board and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman was issued to the media last week. But when reporters tried to gain access to the meeting, they were denied (http://bit.ly/ygHHU4 ).
Department spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said local officials had decided to close the meeting because the panel was discussing a competitive grant. But school board chairman Mike Evatt and Superintendent Rick Smith said the meeting was closed at Huffman’s request.
Evatt said he saw no need for the panel to meet in executive session.
“It wasn’t my call,” Smith said. “It was the commissioner’s call.”
The meeting also included representatives of the local teachers’ union, the Public Education Foundation and school administrators.
Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said that the state’s Sunshine Law operates on the presumption of openness, and makes only limited allowances for executive sessions.
Flanagan noted that the first line of the state’s open meetings act declares that Tennessee’s policy is “that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.”
The discussion at Thursday’s meeting focused on whether the county should apply for the state’s School Innovation Zone that would give them more flexibly to operate failing schools, such as offering longer school days.
Huffman said in an earlier speech to the Chattanooga Rotary Club that he hoped the county would apply for the grant worth $30 million to $40 million.
“The idea is that districts would figure out what autonomy and flexibilities they would give to schools in the innovation zone,” Huffman said.
Gov. Bill Haslam Wednesday defended his legislative efforts to make secret the names of business owners getting millions of state taxpayer dollars to build or expand in Tennessee.
More from Richard Locker: The bill, set for a Senate floor vote this morning, would expand confidentiality provisions already in state law regarding the proprietary information of companies awarded taxpayer-funded incentives to include the names of owners of privately held companies.
The Senate vote on SB 2207 was delayed Monday after state Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, argued that taxpayers deserve to know who’s getting their tax money and that secrecy could lead to corruption. Meanwhile, the president of the Nashville Tea Party and a co-founder of Tennessee Tax Revolt called the bill an “absurdity.”
“We’re absolutely opposed to it,” said Ben Cunningham of Nashville. “It’s an insult to every taxpayer in the state. It’s crazy to demand secrecy when you’re giving away taxpayer money. It’s going to get to the point where giveaways are done for political contributions or personal favors. It’s happened in other states, and it’s an open invitation to that kind of corruption.”
But Haslam told reporters Wednesday his economic development officials want the bill to protect Tennessee’s competitiveness with other states in the cutthroat business of industrial recruiting, where companies play states against each other to maximize the taxpayer funding they get to build or expand operations.
“I think ECD’s (the Department of Economic and Community Development) feelings are that in a very competitive world out there, we’re competing with other states, that (public disclosure of ownership interests) would put us at a disadvantage,” the governor said.
Haslam and ECD Commissioner Bill Hagerty say they want the bill so they can require businesses seeking state incentives to turn over sensitive information to state officials analyzing whether to award them the state cash grants, tax incentives or credits. They said businesses won’t produce the information if the state must make it public. Note: The News-Sentinel has an editorial today opposing the bill.
A file the public is barred from seeing is so damning as to require automatic reversals of the convictions in one of Knoxville’s most horrific crimes in recent times, an attorney argued Friday.
More from Jamie Satterfield’s story: Doug Trant told Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation file on former Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner presents “overwhelming” evidence the trials of four defendants in the January 2007 torture-slayings of a young couple were “structurally” flawed and must be overturned as a matter of law.
Trant served as co-counsel for Lemaricus Davidson, the convicted ringleader in the carjacking and killing of Channon Christian, 21, and Christopher Newsom, 23. Also in court Friday were attorneys for co-defendants Letalvis Cobbins, George Thomas and Vanessa Coleman.
All four are seeking new trials, in part, because of revelations Baumgartner was buying from a felon on probation in his court and using hundreds of prescription painkillers.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation launched a probe of Baumgartner in late 2010 — months after the last of the four trials in the Christian/Newsom case. That probe showed Baumgartner was using drugs bought from felon Christopher Gibson as early as November 2009.
The TBI’s file has been kept secret, so it’s not clear if there are allegations the judge was abusing drugs before he was first introduced to Gibson in November 2009.
The information in the TBI file that attorneys insist plainly shows the need for new trials also is secret.
Retreating from a position adopted during former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration, the state Department of Revenue has moved to partially raise a veil of secrecy that has covered official interpretations of Tennessee tax law since 2008.
The so-called “letter rulings” are provided on request to taxpayers, typically companies, willing to pay a fee for an answer to questions on the state tax consequences in a given situation.
Apparently, Amazon.com got a secret letter ruling late last year on its desire to be exempt from collecting Tennessee sales taxes. Gov. Bill Haslam has said there are “ongoing negotiations” with Amazon that could lead to another, clarifying letter ruling.
The policy change will not directly impact the Amazon situation, but it will mean the partial opening of a door completely closed three years ago.
As of Wednesday, the Department of Revenue has issued 40 “letter rulings” this year and has decided that redacted versions of 17 will be made public and posted on the department’s website, according to Deputy Commissioner Glen Page.
Another 15 of this year’s rulings remain “under review,” he said, and eight will be kept secret, typically because of concerns that the taxpayer could be identified because of specific information in the ruling, even if the name is deleted.
As for the rulings issued under Bredesen, the department has selected five rulings deemed of enough interest to make public but will “not to go back and re-hash” the rest, Page said, unless a particular reason becomes apparent.
State Comptroller Justin Wilson had clashed with the Bredesen policy of non-disclosure, saying the officials would not even provide information that he felt need by auditors and others in his office.
“They were very difficult about disclosing information to me,” said Wilson, who praised the recent policy change, though saying he would prefer going even further in making documents public.