ethics

Mark Lovell’s night on the legislative reception circuit

The Tennessean has a lengthy review of Mark Lovell’s activities leading up to his resignation from the legislature amind allegations that he sexually harassed at least one woman on the night of Feb. 7. The “fondling” episode came after Lovell made the rounds on the legislative reception circuit and, by several accounts, became intoxicated. An excerpt:

On the night in question, there were at least five formal receptions. Lovell, who has longer, more coiffed hair than most lawmakers and sports a salt and pepper goatee, attended them all. The first event began before the end of the business day.

Lawmakers were invited to The Standard. It costs thousands of dollars a year to join the private club, established in 1843, and although there is a public restaurant at The Standard, a keycode is required to get into the more exclusive rooms.The soiree started at 4:30 p.m. with drinks and food paid for by AT&T and Delta Dental.

…The Tennessee Malt Beverage Association hosted lawmakers at their 14th annual “Brew Ha-Ha.” The invitation for the event, at the German-themed Gerst House near Nissan Stadium, shows a clipart image of a buxom woman holding a beer-laden tray as two figures toast in the background.

…While the food at these events tends to be mediocre, receptions at Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant stand out. The Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association spent more than $17,000 at the downtown restaurant that evening, offering heavy hors d’oeuvres like barbecue and cheese plates as live music filled the air at the southern-style eatery. The bacon-wrapped asparagus was particularly delicious.

Anyone attending a different reception hosted by the Tennessee Disability Coalition had the opportunity to meet with people served by organizations including AARP Tennessee, Disability Rights Tennessee and the Mid-Tennessee Council of the Blind. It was at one of the swankier hotels in town, The Sheraton.

…The Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents sponsored an event at the Hermitage Hotel. It’s a posh, century-old building with terracotta tiles, Tennessee marble and a painted glass skylight in the lobby that’s hosted countless lawmakers and dignitaries over the years, including serving as a headquarters for John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. The hotel is across the street from Legislative Plaza.

Only the Gerst House is outside walking distance from the statehouse.

Lovell said he only had three cocktails between 4 and 9 p.m. at the receptions and afterward. “I’m less than a social drinker,” he said on the day he resigned. Others say Lovell, who is partial to Crown Royal and Coca-Cola, had many more. By 8 p.m., they say he was visibly drunk.

What happens next is disputed. The 5-foot 8-inch West Tennessean said he didn’t recall doing anything wrong at any events he attended that evening. He called the accusations of sexual impropriety “100 percent false.”

All other sources say after the legislative events that evening, the then-lawmaker grabbed a woman inappropriately while at a local establishment. He is accused of grabbing one woman’s breasts and buttocks, in addition to trying to prevent her from walking away. Several sources say he engaged in additional inappropriate touching with another woman.

Cohen named to House Ethics Committee

News release U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09) today was appointed by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and approved by the House Democratic Caucus to serve on the House Committee on Ethics. In 2008, then-Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi referred to Congressman Cohen as the “conscience of the freshman class.”

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Democrats call for repeal of ‘Jeremy’s law’

From the Associated Press

Democrats at the state Capitol on Tuesday blasted their Republican colleagues for not doing enough to prevent sexual harassment on the hill, after a freshman Republican lawmaker resigned surrounding allegations of sexual misconduct.

Rep. Mark Lovell, a fair and carnival operator from suburban Shelby County submitted his resignation letter on Tuesday. Lovell said in the letter that the elected position ended up being more demanding than he expected and that he needed more time to devote to his business interests and family.

Democrats though quickly sensed blood in the water and took the opportunity to strike.

“This is unacceptable behavior from people who are elected to the general assembly,” said Sherry Jones, a Democrat from Nashville.

Jones and two other top Democratic lawmakers addressed reporters Tuesday afternoon and called on lawmakers to repeal what’s known as Jeremy’s Law.

The bill, which passed last year, was unofficially named after former Rep. Jeremy Durham, who was expelled from his seat surrounding allegations he sexually harassed more than two dozen women at the Capitol.

That bill mandates any victim of sexual harassment who sues the state and loses must then pay for the legal fees of the defense.

“I would say nobody up here is safe anymore. If we can go through all of the sexual harassment issues that happened last year, and you still have somebody…who would do something like that again, what does that say about this place?” Jones added.

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Rep. Lovell resigns House seat; accused of ‘inappropriate sexual contact’

State Rep. Mark Lovell, a freshman Shelby County Republican who defeated veteran Rep. Curry Todd in last year’s Republican primary,  has submitted a letter of resignation from his House District 95 seat.

The Tennessean reports that the resignation comes with Lovell accused of inappropriate sexual contact with a woman last week, though he contends the accusation is “100 percent false.”

“I’m taking away from my family, I’m taking away my business and now I’ve got accusations of improperness and it’s like you know what, I just need to focus on my family and my business and I don’t need people throwing stones at me when it’s not necessary,” Lovell said in the phone call.

Lovell, R-Eads, engaged in “inappropriate touching” with one woman, (a) source said. Another person with knowledge of the situation also confirmed Lovell is under investigation for acting inappropriately toward a woman.

That statement, more or less, comports with Lovell saying in his resignation letter to House Speaker Beth Harwell, dated Tuesday, that “the time requirements to represent my constituents are more demanding than anticipated” and he doesn’t “have the time necessary to devote to my business interests and to my family.”

Further, from the Associated Press:

Lovell told WHBQ-TV in Memphis that a woman had accused him of inappropriate touching at a legislative event last week.

“The accusations are taking away from my family and my business,” he added. “It doesn’t matter if you’re guilty or not in politics.”

…The Shelby County Commission will name a temporary replacement for Lovell until a permanent successor is voted into office within 107 days of Gov. Bill Haslam issuing a writ of election.

Note: Copy of the resignation letter is available by clicking on this link: lovell

Audit helps keep Durham ‘in the crosshairs’ of fed prosecutors?

Following up on the Registry of Election Finance audit of Jeremy Durham’s campaign finances, The Tennessean quotes a former federal prosecutor as sayiing the report is “packed with problematic stuff” for the former legislator that will keep him “in the crosshairs” of an ongoing federal investigation. The article goes on to give a couple of comparisons between federal prosecutions in other states and matters raised in the Durham audit.

Before federal investigators indicted North Carolina state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell Jr. on more than a dozen counts of money laundering, mail fraud, wire fraud and tax evasion, they asked him why he spent campaign money on haircuts.

Hartsell said he is a “hippie” and only trims his locks because he’s a lawmaker, according to federal court documents. Investigators called this rationalization an attempt to “perpetuate his scheme to defraud.”

In comparison, when a state auditor asked ex-Tennessee lawmaker Jeremy Durham why he spent more than $1,400 of campaign funds on lawn care, he reportedly told the investigators he needed the lawn mowed at his house in case he hosted fundraisers there.

In pleading guilty to a federal wire fraud charge this month, a former mayor in New York admitted to using campaign contributions for his own purposes. The wire fraud charge stemmed from the former mayor moving fraudulent funds between bank accounts, court documents state.

In the Durham audit, Tennessee campaign finance officials found Durham spent more than $10,000 of donor money on personal items, including alcohol and a plane ticket for his wife. He also routinely moved funds between his campaign, political action committee and personal and professional bank accounts.

Both the North Carolina and New York cases demonstrate strategies the FBI and U.S. attorney for Middle Tennessee could use if they indict Durham.

Durham’s lawyer threatened to sue Registry over audit release

In releasing an audit indicating hundreds of campaign finance law violations by former state Rep. Jeremy Durham, the Registry of Election Finance board ignored a threatened lawsuit by Durham’s lawyer, Peter Strianse, according to The Tennessean. Now Strianse says he and Durham have not decided whether to follow through on the threat.

In a Feb. 6 letter sent to a staff attorney for the registry… Strianse said releasing the audit to the public would be “premature and unfairly prejudicial” to the Franklin Republican, reflecting an argument he used prior to the audit’s release on Wednesday.

“Obviously this matter is of great public importance and personal importance to Mr. Durham. Respectfully, it is our belief that many of the findings contained in the Draft Report are clearly erroneous, contrary to law, and require significant correction and amplification,” Strianse wrote in his three-page letter, obtained by The Tennessean through an open records request.

Registry Treasurer Tom Lawless, who is also an attorney and served as chairman when the audit began, waved off the threat.

“It’s a knee-jerk reaction, almost as if the registry would be intimidated by that. Which couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s a complete immunity,” Lawless said in a phone interview Friday.

“The truth, generally, is an absolute defense in law.”

…“Libel and slander remain actionable torts when the individual in question is a public figure,” Strianse said (in the letter). “The release of the Draft Report over Mr. Durham’s timely objection may demonstrate that the challenged material was published with actual malice if it is prematurely released on 2/8/17 before Mr. Durham has had an opportunity to respond and proper findings have been made by the Board.”

More random audits needed to catch ‘double-dipping’ legislators?

House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, through spokespersons, tell The Tennessean that it’s not the responsibility of legislative leaders to police “double dipping” by legislators – the practice of billing taxpayers for daily expense payments while also being reimbursed for their expenses from their campaign finance accounts.

That illegal action was highlighted in an audit released Wednesday that found rampant wrongdoing by former lawmaker Jeremy Durham.

Among the possible 500 violations of campaign finance law found by the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance, Durham is accused of receiving $7,700 in payments from the legislature for personal expenses he’d already reimbursed himself for using campaign funds. That would be illegal, but Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Beth Harwell said that’s up to the registry to monitor.

“Violations in a campaign account are governed by the Registry of Election Finance, which is permitted to turn any criminal finding over to the district attorney,” said Kara Owen, a spokeswoman for Harwell.

McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider also noted the legal process in place if lawmakers receive improper reimbursements.

“If there are further possible remedies, Lt. Governor McNally would certainly be open to discussing them but clearly there are already laws on the books that cover this kind of illegal and unethical behavior,” Kleinheider said.

..No legislative leaders are recommending tougher penalties for campaign violations in the wake of the Durham audit.

House Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Franklin, said the registry is best equipped to ensure reimbursement issues are addressed. But he and House Ethics Committee Chairman Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, who chaired the special committee that investigated Durham’s sexual impropriety last year, agreed that the Durham findings necessitate a formal review of House practices.

… Despite the tepid response to any legislative action from Harwell and McNally, lawmakers could increase the number of random audits election finance officials perform each year.

Under state law, only 2 percent of candidates — including judges, lawmakers and the governor — are subject to a random audit in an election year. That means during the 2014 election cycle, just 10 candidates, five of whom were legislative candidates, received full audits, according to the registry’s website.

“Other than random audits, I don’t know of anything that we have. I mean, how do you know if somebody’s telling you the truth unless you audit them? And that’s how they found all of these things, was through an audit,” McDaniel said.

Note: The referenced WTVF report (short version in previous post HERE) was based on what reporter Phil Williams called “old fashioned accounting” – simply matching what legislators reported spending in their campaign finance disclosures with the dates they were reimbursed for travel/per diem and noting when the two overlapped. It would seem a fairly simple matter to legislatively mandate that Registry staff do the same – except, of course, that would add to the workload of folks of an already-understaffed agency. But maybe simply enacting such a review requirement would deter – if not eliminate – the intentional practice of double dipping. In the cases cited by WTVF, the legislators reimbursed the state for what they said was an unintentional oversight.

Therapist ethics bill dropped in favor of broader legislation

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jack Johnson is dropping a bill mandating a new code of ethics for counselors and instead backing a broader bill that will cover other professions, reports the Times-Free Press.

Johnson, R-Franklin, had stirred controversy by introducing SB1, which basically followed up on a law enacted in 2016 that allows licensed counselors and therapists to opt out of serving clients whose goals were at odds with a professional’s ‘sincerely held principles.’

Instead of pushing for a new state-written code of conduct and ethics for the Tennessee Counseling Association… Johnson… throwing his support to a bill introduced by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown. (SB449)

Their bill would require dozens of state professional associations that adopt codes of practice, often fashioned at the national level and enforced by state-created boards, to come under the state’s Uniform Administrative Procedures Act. There the codes would be reviewed by state lawmakers.

… (Senate Government Operations Chairman) Bell said he began “looking at this more from a global perspective and how we can make sure first that — I don’t want to go through the fight that we went through last year that Sen. Johnson and Rep. Howell passed. I’d much rather this be done in an orderly way.”

Bell said his panel and its House counterpart already provide such order and “can review guidelines, codes of ethics and rules or regulations.”

Note: Press release and a critical comment from Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris are below.

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More on Durham audit — up to 500 violations, June hearing set

From The Tennessean’s overview story:

Former state Rep. Jeremy Durham violated state campaign finance law possibly as many as 500 times, including spending more than $10,000 of campaign funds illegally to buy an airplane ticket for his wife, custom suits, spa products and sunglasses, according to a state campaign finance audit released Wednesday.

He also used campaign money for more mundane bills, including lawn care and paint for his home office, the audit shows.

Durham made at least 55 illegal purchases using money given by donors; the state report outlines 39 expenses, but some include multiple purchases. The former Franklin lawmaker also used campaign funds to invest more than $100,000 in the company of a wealthy GOP donor, loan nearly $30,000 to a professional gambler who has a criminal past and loan $25,000 to his wife, auditors found.

Durham paid himself $7,702 from his campaign account for expenses he’d already been reimbursed for by the state, according to the audit. The practice is more commonly known as double-dipping.

…In addition to the illegal use of campaign finances, the audit details how Durham invested more than $100,000 in Life Watch Pharmacy, a company owned by Andrew Miller, a prominent Republican donor who has advocated for anti-Islam policy in the state.

…The report also states David Whitis, a professional gambler who has a criminal record, received three checks totaling $29,800 from Durham’s campaign account…Two of the checks to Whitis indicate the funds are a “loan to friend.” Additional information provided to the auditors by Durham states the money was “capital for a startup venture.”

From WPLN’s report:

Durham’s attorney has a “laundry list” of objections to the findings. Peter Strianse also says he thought the report was a draft that would not yet be distributed widely.

“I understand if that’s they’re procedure and those are the steps we have to go through,” says the lawyer. “But why in the world would you make public a report that you know is going to be subject to significant challenge?”

But a Registry official says the office followed standard protocol.  

Durham’s attorney has until May to respond to the findings, before a hearing slated for June.

The Franklin Republican was expelled from the legislature last year following nearly two dozen anonymous claims of sexual harassment.

A federal investigation into potential campaign finance violations is ongoing. 

 

Registry audit finds multiple campaign finance violations by Durham

The Registry of Election Finance staff today released its audit of former state Rep. Jeremy Durham’s campaign disclosures at a meeting of the Registry board. Here are the top-listed findings:

1. Jeremy Durham violated T.C.A. §2-10-105(a) and T.C.A. §2-10-107(a)(2)(A) by failing to report $36,334.95 in campaign contributions.

2. Jeremy Durham violated T.C.A. §2-10-105(a) by reporting $4,600 in contributions where the associated funds cannot be identified as being deposited into a bank account.

3. Jeremy Durham violated T.C.A. §2-10-105(a) by failing to report $10,623.70 in interest earned on campaign funds and T.C.A. §2-10-114(b)(1) by depositing $1,637.50 of that interest into his personal account.

4. Jeremy Durham violated T.C.A. § 2-10-302 by receiving $5,500 in contributions over the campaign limits.

5. Jeremy Durham violated T.C.A. §2-10-105(a) by reporting $6,500 of contributions intended for PACs he controlled as contributions to his campaign account.

6. Jeremy Durham violated T.C.A. § 2-10-107(a)(2)(A) by failing to accurately disclose the names of several contributors. 7. Jeremy Durham violated T.C.A. §2-10-105(a) and T.C.A. § 2-10-107(a)(2)(B) by failing to accurately report campaign expenditures.

8. Jeremy Durham violated T.C.A. §2-10-114 by disbursing $10,176.35 in campaign funds for prohibited activities.

9. Jeremy Durham made cash withdrawals and reimbursements to himself in the amount of $11,927.43 from campaign funds without support which is a violation of T.C.A. §2-10-114(b)(1).

10. Jeremy Durham reimbursed $7,702.07 in expenses to himself from his campaign account that were also reimbursed by the State of Tennessee which is a violation of T.C.A. §2-10-114(b)(1).

11. In violation of T.C.A. §2-10-212(c), Jeremy Durham failed to retain sufficient expense records to determine whether all expenditures were allowable.

12. Jeremy Durham disbursed $64,800 for promissory & convertible note activity which appears to be unallowable per T.C.A. §2-10-114(b)(1).

The full report is available by clicking on this link: durhamaudit

ABOUT THIS BLOG

Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.

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