The Tennessee General Assembly is sleepwalking its way through its worst ethical crisis in almost two decades. Average citizens haven't been so engaged -- and outraged -- with a legislative issue since the great income tax debate.
The case of state senator John Ford, the prickly master of bravado from Memphis who has flouted his disregard for convention for three decades, has brought ethics to the front burner. Ford appears to have taken a quarter-million dollars from a company profiting from TennCare for some sort of vague "consulting'' work. He has spent campaign money on a wedding. He doesn't live among those he was elected to represent. In trouble, he seems to have turned where legislators often go for help: the lobbyists. According to at least two, he was soliciting money for a legal defense fund. If true, that is a brazen violation of what meager laws there are on the subject.
If Ford is taken to task on any of this, it probably won't be the work of the General Assembly. Getting the legislature to acknowledge it has lost public confidence and needs to set reasonable standards of public behavior is akin to finding a silver bullet for TennCare. Efforts to pass serious ethics legislation in Tennessee have been a 30-year study in inertia.
The Senate Ethics Committee has the Ford case under consideration. The committee's first instinct was to slap Ford's hand for a "technical omission'' for failing to list "consulting'' on a disclosure form. Only after a weekend of listening to constituents howl did the committee do a 180-degree reversal and agree to look deeper into Ford's dealings.
The disclosure forms lawmakers must file are a perfect example of what's wrong with the system. Ford could probably have avoided his troubles by simply listing "consulting" as one of his occupations, and no one would have asked whether it involved helping companies get state business. A legislator can list "banking'' as his occupation. That could mean serving on a bank's board of directors. It could also mean taking $100 bills to the cashier in exchange for smaller denominations. Almost on a daily basis, senators and representatives sponsor bills having a direct impact on their professions and livelihoods without any declaration of conflict of interest.
One of the chief sources of shady financial dealings at the Capitol involves campaign money flowing from special interests, accounting for at least 60 percent of all re-election efforts. Until last year, a citizen had to go through an intimidating process of showing identification at a Nashville office to look at a campaign filing -- and be warned that the candidate would get a postcard identifying the curious citizen.
Now the forms are available on the Internet, but there's one critical ingredient missing: Contributors don't have to list an occupation. That makes it virtually impossible to trace all the special-interest ties. It's pure accident when violations of campaign financing laws come to light. The regulator watchdog overseeing such matters has no power to initiate an investigation or any staff to pursue one.
It's clear the legislature won't, and maybe can't, police its own ranks. The relationships are too chummy, and the practices too embedded. It may be time for Tennessee to consider a truly independent citizens' commission to set and enforce ethical standards, a commission with some real power and the ability, staff, and funding to pursue serious investigations. Other states have used that system with success. n
Larry Daughtrey is a columnist for the Nashville Tennessean, where a version of this essay first appeared.