ethics

VA doctor accused of violating Hatch Act as 2014 TN candidate for U.S. Senate

A Veterans Affairs doctor is accused of violating the federal Hatch Act during a failed 2014 campaign to unseat Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, including promoting his campaign during visits with at least one patient, reports The Tennessean.

Choudhury Salekin violated the act 15 times, according to a release from the Office of Special Counsel (see below)…. It could not immediately be confirmed if Salekin was still working at the Murfreesboro VA facility. A message left for Salekin seeking comment was not immediately returned Wednesday evening.

Note: Salekin, one of eight independent candidates on the ballot, received 787 votes statewide in the Nov. 4, 2014 general election – won by Alexander with 850,087 votes with Democrat Gordon Ball runnerup with 437,848 votes, according to official returns posted on the Division of Election website.

Press release from U.S. Office of Special Counsel

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) has filed a complaint for disciplinary action with the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) against a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctor, charging him with 15 counts of violating the Hatch Act.

While an employee of the VA’s Tennessee Valley Healthcare System (in Murfreesboro), the doctor ran as an independent candidate in the 2014 partisan election for the office of U.S. senator from Tennessee. According to OSC, the doctor promoted his candidacy by distributing business cards featuring the VA’s official seal and touting his campaign video, which was available on his campaign website and on YouTube.

The video included a testimonial from a patient he had treated at the VA. OSC also alleges that the doctor encouraged several VA colleagues and at least one patient – during a medical consultation – to watch his campaign video. He also solicited campaign contributions both online and in person and invited at least one patient, also during a medical consultation, to a campaign event.

The Hatch Act generally prohibits federal employees from being candidates in partisan elections – even as independent candidates – and from knowingly soliciting, accepting, or receiving political contributions from any person, at any time. The Hatch Act also prohibits employees from using their official influence as government employees to affect the result of an election. Finally, federal employees may not engage in any political activity while on duty or in the federal workplace.

According to OSC’s November 17, 2017, complaint, the VA doctor had received guidance from the VA’s acting general counsel outlining each of the Hatch Act’s restrictions.

OSC’s complaint asks the MSPB to find that the doctor engaged in prohibited political activity as charged and to order appropriate disciplinary action. Penalties for Hatch Act violations range from reprimand or suspension to removal and debarment from federal employment.

“Federal employees should remember their restrictions under the Hatch Act,” Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner said. “Those who have questions should contact the Office of Special Counsel or their relevant agency officials for advice.”

…The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency. Our basic authorities come from four federal statutes: the Civil Service Reform Act, the Whistleblower Protection Act, the Hatch Act, and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. OSC’s primary mission is to safeguard the merit system by protecting federal employees and applicants from prohibited personnel practices, especially whistleblower retaliation, and to serve as a safe channel for allegations of wrongdoing. For more information, please visit our website at www.osc.gov.

Judge gets reprimand for granting jail sentence reductions for vasectomies

White County General Sessions Jud Sam Benningfied has been reprimanded by the state Board of Judicial Conduct for offering jail inmates 30 days off their time behind bars for getting vasectomies or birth control implants, reports The Tennessean.

Bennifield’s order authorizing sentence reductions for long-term birth control measures was issued in May and rescinded in July after protests. It has led to at least two lawsuits against the judge and the White County sheriff, who oversees the jail in Sparta.

A letter posted on the Board’s public website (HERE) says the judge’s actions threatened confidence in the judicial system.

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TBI agents, investigating former Rep. Jeremy Durham, ask legislators about bribery

TBI agents recently interviewed at least two state legislators – House Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Franklin, and Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden — in conjunction with a criminal investigation into former Rep. Jerry Durham, reports The Tennessean. The agents specifically asked about bribery, but Casada and Holt said they were unaware of any such activity.

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Ethics Commission imposes $30K fine on former Rep. Jeremy Durham

The Tennessee Ethics Commission Tuesday voted to impose a $30,000 fine on former state Rep. Jeremy Durham, who already faces $465,000 in penalties imposed by the Registry of Election Finance, reports the Tennessean.

The registry fines were for violation of campaign finance laws. The Ethics Commission penalty is for Durham’s failure to include all sources of income in his conflict-of-interest disclosure filed while he was a legislator.

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Sheriff, already under indictment, faces new flap over helping bail-bondsman wife in multi-state manhunt

Start of a Times Free Press report on Sunday:

In one epic April weekend, Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson threatened a group of inmates for talking trash about his bail-bondsman wife; embroiled more than a dozen law officers in a multistate manhunt for one of her bail skips; and pulled a gun on a motorist in Georgia, where he has no authority — all with his wife and another bondsman riding along in his official sheriff’s vehicle.

The episode lends weight to complaints from the Bradley County bail bonding community of a thumb on the scales in favor of the sheriff’s wife, Tenille Watson. It also echoes allegations of wrongdoing by Sheriff Watson forwarded last year to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

That TBI investigation resulted in Watson being indicted on six felony counts of using forged or altered vehicle titles in connection with his sideline business as a used-car dealer. Watson was booked July 21. No court date had been set in that case as of Friday. TBI spokeswoman Susan Niland said Thursday the investigation is ongoing.

Meanwhile, local attorneys asked to review documents and videos related to Watson’s Easter weekend activities say he could have opened himself up to liability ranging from civil rights violations to kidnapping and aggravated assault.

The Times Free Press sent Watson a detailed list of questions Thursday morning about his activities that weekend and asked for his comment. He did not respond.

Registry votes to fine Durham $465K for campaign finance violations

The Registry of Election Finance board voted today to levy $465,000 in civil penalties against former state Rep. Jeremy Durham for multiple violations of state campaign finance laws. That’s the biggest such fine ever imposed by the watchdog agency in its 26-year history.

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On fines for violations of TN campaign finance, lobbying laws going unpaid

The Registry of Election Finance and the Tennessee Ethics Commission have levied $730,000 in civil penalties since 2010, but collected just 21 percent of that total, reports The Tennessean.

The Registry, which oversees enforcement of campaign finance laws, has $356,125 in unpaid fines during the period while the Ethics Commission, which oversees enforcement of lobbying laws and the filing of conflict-of-interest disclosures, has $218,380 in unpaid penalties. (Note: A big chunk of the unpaid Registry penalties are from 2016, when the agency assessed $215,300 in fines with $172,275 unpaid as of last month, according to Registry figures.) If other unpaid penalties going back up to  26 years are added, the unpaid total reaches more than $1 million.

These findings underline what many Tennessee politicos already know: The public entities tasked with holding officials accountable have little, if any, teeth.

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Deal providing tax-exempt bonds to Nashville charter schools brings criticism

Working with a politically-connected law firm, two Nashville charter schools used an obscure Metro Nashville board to receive tax-exempt bonds for their projects that are drawing intense scrutiny after going unnoticed by other city officials for months, according to the Tennessean.

The deals approved by the Metro Health and Educational Facilities Board for Rocketship and Purpose Prep charter schools do not use local taxpayer money and contain no provisions that would put taxpayers on the hook. But critics on the Metro Council and the Nashville school board say the charters should go to banks for private financing and not use the facilities board, which can issue tax-free bonds for nonprofit groups.

They directed particularly sharp criticism at a $7.74 million in bonds for Rocketship, which is part of a national charter school network.

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Politico lists Corker, Fleischmann as having potential conflicts in stock trades

Sen. Bob Corker and Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, both Chattanooga Republicans, are highlighted by Politico in a listing congressmen whose stock trading raises a question of conflicting interests with their lawmaking activity.

The article, bearing the headline “Reckless stock trading leaves Congress rife with conflicts,” reports that Political found “28 House members and six senators each traded more than 100 stocks in the past two years, placing them in the potential cross hairs of a conflict of interest on a regular basis. And a handful of lawmakers, some of them frequent traders and some not, disproportionately trade in companies that also have an interest in their work on Capitol Hill.”

Here are excerpts from the report on Corker and Fleischmann:

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House rejects honoring resolution for writer with Penthouse background

The House has spurned a resolution honoring Kay West, longtime Nashville journalist perhaps best known as a restaurant food critic – apparently because she once worked for Penthouse magazine. The resolution (HR127) was sponsored by Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville.

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