Lawmaker Says She Works Free, Pockets $43K - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NewsChannel 5 Investigates:

Lawmaker Says She Works Free, Pockets $43K

(Story created: 7/26/06)

A NewsChannel 5 investigation first exposed how a well-known Nashville lawmaker profited off her campaign funds. Still, Mary Pruitt insisted that she deserved a break because -- she claims -- she works for free. So our chief investigative reporter Phil Williams investigated.

State Rep. Mary Pruitt reacted with outrage to questions uncovered by our NewsChannel 5 investigation.

"I don't have to do all this kind of mess that you are talking about," the Nashville Democrat told Phil Williams.

The investigation focused on questions about a house she owns and the thousands of dollars in campaign funds that she's paid herself, supposedly to rent the house as an office.

"So don't you put me on the level of nobody -- not anybody," she insisted. "I have money coming in -- legit money, OK?"

In fact, the 20-year legislative veteran told us that she's such a great public servant that she, in her words, "donates" her time to the General Assembly.

"Let me put it to you like this: I work free," she told Williams.

Tax watchdog Ben Cunningham says, "It really is very disingenuous of her now to say I work for free. Number one, you don't work for free."

Cunningham says lots of lawmakers grumble about their pay, but every single one -- including Pruitt -- gets paid.

First, there's a salary: $16,500 a year -- for a part time job.

They also receive what's called a "home office allowance" -- $12,000 a year.

And since so many lawmakers have to travel from out of town, there's also the daily expense allowance -- called a per diem.  Right now, it's $150 a day -- to cover the cost of hotels and food.

But even though Rep. Pruitt lives just two miles down the road, you pay her a travel allowance every day that she drives down to the Capitol for a meeting.

Last year: she pocketed more than $14,000 in per diem.

The problem, Pruitt says, is she has to pay taxes on it. "When I file my income tax, they take most of it out," she claims.

Cunningham says, "They knew what the job paid when they ran for office."

He adds that lawmakers should get reimbursed for legitimate travel expenses, but he says Pruitt and other local lawmakers treat the per diem -- your tax dollars -- like play money.

"If you go into your boss and say, hey, I traveled across town -- reimburse me for a night in a motel. He's gonna say you're crazy."

In fact, Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, is the only Davidson County lawmaker who doesn't keep the per diem.

"Well, I turn it back into the state because it doesn't apply to me," he explains.

Henry says he doesn't have travel expenses and doesn't feel right about keeping the money.

But he doesn't begrudge lawmakers like Mary Pruitt who do.

"Some of the members say the pay is so low that they are entitled to regard that as part of their pay," Henry adds. "That line of argument -- I'm not arguing with it."

Cunningham responds:

"This is not a system to play and game and to try to deviously get more money because you think you deserve more money."

As for Representative Pruitt's claim that she works "free," last year, she brought home a total of $42,849 -- again, for a part-time job.

"Forty-three thousand dollars a year is not free -- not in my book," Cunningham says.

That's on top of the approximately $6,000 that she paid herself from campaign funds to rent her own house.

Cunningham adds that it says something about the legislature that a lawmaker could take home so much money... and still tell her constituents: "I work free."

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