Stewart faces ethics complaint over questioning TEMA director

State Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, has filed an ethics complaint against House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart because of questions the Nashville lawyer-legislator asked the director of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency during a legislative hearing on Gatlinburg fires.

From The Tennessean:

The statements from Stewart occurred during a House Government Operations Committee meeting on Feb. 16.

Before asking TEMA director Patrick Sheehan questions, Stewart said, “Full disclosure, I’m a lawyer and I can’t remember, but it’s always possible that my firm would have some involvement in lawsuits related to those fires. So just be aware of that.”

Stewart is a partner at the Nashville-based law firm Branstetter, Stranch and Jennings, which was hired to represent someone affected by the fire.

…During the committee meeting, Stewart asked Sheehan to explain what happened with the communications systems that resulted in text notifications not being sent out to nearby residents before the fire reached the city.

…In Ragan’s complaint, he points to a Feb. 6 letter from Stewart’s law firm to TEMA in which they request various information regarding the area’s communications system.

In the letter, the law firm asked for records of statements made by TEMA, communication between federal, state and city employees and any contracts with third party groups that provided emergency warning services.

“Given the timing and nearly identical way in which the questions Representative Stewart asked in committee mirror the questions made by his law firm, I believe that Representative Stewart knowingly asked questions…to aid himself and Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings,” Ragan wrote in his complaint.

…Stewart said he thought he asked very generic questions that he didn’t think were improper… Stewart said until Thursday he was not aware that the Feb. 6 letter was sent by the law firm to TEMA.

Stewart, who previously served as a member of the 10-member House Ethics Committee, said he would be happy to explain his actions in the event that the complaint is taken up by the committee.

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