Judge rules records of failed Fall Creek Falls privatization effort must be made public

The Tennessee Department of General Services must release records related to the failed privatization effort at Fall Creek Falls State Park, Davidson County Chancellor Bill Young ruled Tuesday in a lawsuit brought by the Nashville Scene and the Nashville Post.

From the Scene’s report:

The case was unique because the state received no bids on a proposal to demolish and rebuild the Inn at Fall Creek Falls, despite amending the original request for proposals several times. A May 1 final deadline passed with no bids. The Scene asked for the records that would normally be available for public inspection at the end of any bid evaluation process.

The state claimed that because no bids had been evaluated, TDGS was not required to release the records associated with the process. The Scene filed suit on May 31.

Chancellor Young disagreed, noting that the state’s public records law instructs that it “shall be broadly construed so as to give the fullest possible public access to public records.” He ordered the records to be made available, ruling that any documents or communications that the state claims are protected by attorney-client privilege must be submitted to the court for evaluation. 

“It’s a good day for transparency in Tennessee,” says Chris Ferrell, CEO of Southcomm, the parent company of the Scene and Nashville Post. “While I’m sorry we had file suit in order to get the state to comply, it’s reassuring that the courts recognize that the state can’t decide to hide things from the public in such an arbitrary way.”

Young instructed Scene attorney John Williams and lawyers for the state to agree to and submit an order to the court by early July. Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter said in court that the state may ask for a stay of Young’s ruling, pending an appeal.

Judge OKs public release of withheld records on Sevier County wildfire

State officials kept secret for weeks a judge’s ruling that government records on the handling of the deadly Sevier County wildfire could be released to the public, reports the News Sentinel, which obtained a copy by asking the judge and court clerk.

The order by Juvenile and General Sessions Judge Jeff Rader, filed June 5, came in response to the state attorney general’s request for clarification on what records the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency could release about the fire that killed 14 people.

…The judge, who will hear the case of the two teenagers accused of setting the blaze, said a gag order issued in the case applied only to prosecutors, defense lawyers and court officials – and to no one else.

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and various other agencies have cited the case for months in refusing to release records of the response to the wildfire. TEMA spokesman Dean Flener indicated the agency will comply with the ruling. He offered no timetable.

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TN civil rights intimidation law challenged in gorilla mask protest at ETSU

The validity of Tennessee’s law prohibiting civil rights intimidation will be challenged by the attorney for a former East Tennessee State University student charged under the statute after appearing at a Black Lives Matter protest wearing a gorilla mask and carrying a string of bananas, reports the Johnson City Press.

Patrick Denton is representing Tristan Rettke, 19, who was also indicted on charges of disorderly conduct. A preliminary hearing on the charges was held Tuesday.

“This was a counter protest in a free-speech zone on campus,” Denton said after the hearing. “There’s no way that his free speech should have been criminalized. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to taint the jury pool.”

Rettke’s charges stem from a Sept. 28, 2016, incident when he showed up at a Black Lives Matter demonstration dressed in overalls and a gorilla mask while carrying bananas with string tied around them in a burlap bag with the Confederate flag on it.

The demonstration was held at Borchuck Plaza, outside Sherrod Library on the Johnson City campus, previously designated a free-speech zone. It’s supposed to be a location where students can freely express themselves without being harassed or intimidated. But several students participating in the demonstration said that’s exactly how they felt when the gorilla mask-clad man showed up — harassed and intimidated.

Criminal Court Judge Lisa Rice told prosecutors they should give notice to the state attorney general’s office about Denton’s promised motion. Because the motion will challenge the constitutionality of state law, the attorney general’s office will handle it on behalf of the legislature.

Assault charge against Rep. Daniel to be dismissed under deal with prosecutor

An assault charge filed against state Rep. Martin Daniel, R-Knoxville, after he shoved an opponent during a broadcast forum last summer will be dismissed if he stays out of trouble for six months, reports the News Sentinel.

In an agreement with special prosecutor Jason Lawson of Wilson County brokered by defense attorney Gregory P. Isaacs, Daniel will not admit guilt and the assault charge against him will be dismissed after six months of good behavior.

The agreement was announced in a brief hearing Friday before Union County General Sessions Judge Darryl Edmondson, who was tapped to hear the case after Knox County’s judges recused themselves.

“The assault that never was will be dismissed,” Isaacs said after the hearing. “There was no entry of a plea by Rep. Daniel. Rep. Daniel is glad the taxpayers will not be spending any additional money on this unfortunate situation.”

Daniel was slapped with an assault charge after he and then-challenger Steve Hall, a former Knoxville city councilman (and former state representative), got into a shoving match in July 2016 during a live radio forum. Hall pressed the charge, not the Knoxville Police Department.

Note: A post at the time: HERE.

Haslam approves bill authorizing longer criminal sentences for illegal immigrants; Democratic leader ‘disappointed’

Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law Friday a bill authorizing judges to give illegal immigrants longer sentences that U.S. citizens when they are convicted of felonies. The bill (SB1260) got final approval on the last day of the legislative session (May 10) and has inspired some criticism – including talk of lawsuits to challenge it.

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New ‘blue ribbon task force’ on juvenile justice system set up by speakers (Haslam gets a seat)

News release from House Speaker Beth Harwell’s office

NASHVILLE – Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) and Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) this week announced the formation of the Joint Ad Hoc Tennessee Blue Ribbon Task Force on Juvenile Justice. The task force will be co-chaired by Speaker Harwell and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).

The task force will study, evaluate, analyze, and undertake a comprehensive review of the state’s juvenile justice system, using a data-driven approach. The members are charged with developing evidence-based policy recommendations that will lead to potential legislative action that will protect public safety, hold offenders accountable, and contain costs while improving outcomes for youth and families in Tennessee.  Continue reading

Fed lawyers: TN law doesn’t allow legislators to bring refugee lawsuit on behalf of the state

In a 48-page motion filed Thursday, U.S. Department of Justice attorneys asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit over refugee resettlement in Tennessee that was filed by a law firm advocating for states’ rights in response to a resolution passed by the legislature last year.

From The Tennessean’s report:

Among the federal government’s various arguments is that Tennessee law does not allow the General Assembly to bring the lawsuit on behalf of the state.

“Statutes enacted by General Assembly make clear that the authority to represent the state in litigation belongs exclusively to the Attorney General,” the motion states, while pointing out that the state’s attorney general declined to initiate the lawsuit.

At one point, the federal government also says the claim that Tennessee has been forced to spend state funds as part of refugee resettlement is “logic-defying.”

The state’s lawsuit came after lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a resolution in 2016 approving legal action and after Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery declined to initiate the case. Instead, the state’s case was brought forth by the Thomas More Law Center, a Michigan-based legal group.

Bill reducing fees for expunging criminal records becomes law

News release from House Democratic Caucus

MEMPHIS-TN State Rep. Raumesh Akbari says she’s pleased that her bill reducing the expunction fee has been signed into law by Governor Bill Haslam.  The legislation will lower the expunction fee from $350 down to $180. The new law takes effect immediately.

After the signing, Rep. Akbari, (D-District 91), said “The bottom line is this- we believe that people should not be judged for the rest of their lives for the decisions they make on their worst day.  By reducing part of the financial barrier to expunction, more ex-offenders will be able to get their lives back on track; reducing the recidivism rate and strengthening our communities.”

The bill (HB418) was co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris and is part of a criminal justice reform package spearheaded by the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, which Rep. Akbari chairs. (Note: Lead sponsor in the Senate was Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris,)

Akbari also passed two additional expunction bills.  One (HB636) makes it easier for juveniles to get criminal records expunged.  The other (HB873) allows a person who has two convictions to get a one-time expunction of both.

Note: The AP notes in a brief on the bill that the reduction in cost from $350 to $180 doesn’t include related court costs or fees. WBBJ TV of Jackson, quoting a local lawyer, apparently does so – pegging the reduction in total costs from $450 to $270. Both stories note that the state’s law on expunging records covers only relatively minor offenses.

Allison Burchett, ex-wife of Knox County mayor, gets probation in ‘cyberstalking’ case

Knox County’s former first lady  — the ex-wife of county Mayor Tim Burchett — confessed Thursday to cyberstalking the cancer-stricken estranged wife of her millionaire beau, reports the News Sentinel.

Allison Burchett, 35, pleaded guilty in Knox County Criminal Court to six misdemeanor charges of unlawful access to the computer accounts of Nicole Strickland, the estranged wife of Burchett’s live-in lover and Bandit Lites owner Michael Strickland.

She will serve no jail time. Instead, she will spend four years on probation. She is not barred from the internet but must give her probation officer access to her social media accounts and stay away from victim Nicole Strickland.

The deal has been mired in controversy, with Nicole Strickland objecting to the proposal and crying foul over her treatment by the Knox County District Attorney’s office…  Burchett is now under investigation for another hacking that occurred while she was on bond and involved two potential witnesses in the cyberstalking case.

The hearing itself proved controversial, with Senior Judge Don R. Ash blocking Nicole Strickland from reading a victim impact statement — a violation of the Tennessee Crime Victim’s Bill of Rights law.

TN man’s conviction upheld, sentence vacated in Mitt Romney tax returns case

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday upheld a Franklin man’s conviction for trying to extort $1 million from an accounting firm working for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, but vacated his four-year prison sentence, reports the Nashville Post.

A Nashville federal jury last year found Michael Mancil Brown guilty for a 2012 scheme in which he falsely claimed that he had gained access to then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s tax returns, threatening to release them unless the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers paid a $1 million Bitcoin ransom, according to testimony at trial.

Brown, represented by Bone McAllester Norton attorney Alex Little on appeal, argued that the Secret Service did not have probable cause for the search warrant that led to key evidence in the case and that a sentencing enhancement triggered by an obstruction of justice charge was improperly applied. Little declined to comment when reached by the Post Monday.

The appeals court panel rejected the first argument in upholding the conviction, while accepting the second argument, in turn remanding the case to the Nashville district court for resentencing.

According to court proceedings, Brown had sent a letter to the Franklin offices of PwC in the months ahead of the 2012 election demanding the accounting firm pay $1 million, or else he would release the tax returns. Similar letters were sent to local Republican and Democratic party offices, though no evidence that Brown ever possessed the tax documents ever surfaced.