Wednesday, January 11, 2006

STATE BOARD DEADLOCKS OVER ROUT PENALTY

A 3-3 stalemate among Election Registry members effectively sidelines charges relating to 2002 “wedding-anniversary” event.

Posted By on Wed, Jan 11, 2006 at 4:00 AM

NASHVILLE -- In the case of former Shelby County mayor Jim Rout, the tie goes to the runner. That was the de facto judgment of the state Election Registry, sitting in judgment Wednesday at a “show cause” hearing concerning two possible breaches of the state election code.

Basically a 3-3 deadlock, with one member of the seven-member Board abstaining, put the case on ice, where it is likely to remain.

The first matter, relating to Rout’s use of campaign funds to defray wife Sandy’s expenses on what was presented as an official trip to Europe, was disposed of relatively quickly and without controversy. The Registry’s seven-member bi-partisan board held a brief discussion and decided by acclamation that the expenditures were in order and consistent with prevailing practice. The then county mayor’s own expenses for the trip, centering on an economic conference, were paid for by Shelby County government.

There was disagreement, however, on a 40th wedding-anniversary celebration that Rout’s lawyer John Ryder referred to as a “political event” but which was regarded as a wholly private affair by complainants, including Jerry Cobb, Rout’s fellow Memphis Republican, whose letter of protest about the use of campaign funds was part of the record under review on Wednesday.

Democratic board member George Harding of Lebanon got discussion under way with a quip: “Why weren’t we invited?” To which Ryder replied: “The short answer is, you weren’t on the contributors’ list.” That was followed up by Memphian Karen Dunavant, a Republican, who said, “Nor are you likely to be.”

Discussion did not altogether remain in the jesting vein, however. Rout made a presentation in his own defense, contending, like Ryder, that invitees to the 2002 event belonged to former mayor’s political and official universe, that no gifts were conferred on the Routs, and that the event was “themed” as an anniversary-celebration more or less incidentally, as one alternative among many.

That satisfied Harding, Republican member William Long of Nashville, and Democratic member John McClarty of Chattanooga, but it didn’t go all the way with board chairperson Lee Ann Murray, a Nashville Democrat, nor with Republican Darlene McNeece of Loudin nor Marian Ott of Nashville, who represents the League of Women Voters on the panel. Citing the conclusion reached at an “ethics convention” she had just attended, Ott insisted that some signal of disapproval needed to be sent. “What you allow is what you encourage,” she said, going on to propose a $5,000 fine.

Dunavant, a friend of both Rout and Ryder, had recused herself, making possible an even-numbered deadlock. Ott's initial resolution and subsequent ones from her, Murray, or McNeece downsized to $2500 failed to get a crucial fourth vote. As Harding said at one point, “You can make it a dollar if you want to, and I won’t vote for it.” His own resolutions to dismiss the charge altogether also hit the 3-3 barrier, however, so that the final result was permanent and irreversible stalemate.

All principals acknowledged afterward that a renewal of the charges is unlikely, and, understandably, Rout professed satisfaction with that result. If he were doing things all over again, would be insist that the even in question be themed differently? “Of course,” the former mayor said.

For the record, all members of the Election Registry panel, including the three who insisted on a penalty, had made it clear that they did not regard the Routs’ wedding-celebration event in the same light as a wedding celebration for former state Senator John Ford’s daughter, paid for out of campaign funds and sanctioned last year by the Registry.

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