NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The NewsChannel 5 investigation that exposed ghost voting in the House Chambers got voters across the state fired up.
Now, House Speaker Beth Harwell is answering questions about what we found.
As Speaker of the House, Beth Harwell calls the shots in the House chambers. We found in the chambers that representatives routinely clocked in others during roll call, making it appear on the official record that the many, obviously empty seats were full. -- Read the original story: NC5 Investigates State Lawmakers 'Ghost Voting'
The Speaker insists she had never noticed it, even though what was going on was happening right in front of her.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Harwell, "You're in charge?"
"I am," she replied.
"Were you in charge of the House when this was going on?"
Harwell responded, "I am the Speaker of the House, and I enforce the rules."
The rules say all members casting votes are supposed to be at their own desks at the time of voting.
Yet, we found lawmakers regularly voting for others who weren't in their seats and even House members voting for lawmakers who weren't even there.
"You have to understand that I'm an old school teacher and I'd love to have everybody at their desk every single minute just like the school teacher does," Harwell told NewsChannel 5 Investigates. "But, again, I'm very proud of this General Assembly and what they were able to do."
But Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, was able to miss an entire four-hour session and still her name lit up on the voting board nearly two dozen times, thanks to her seatmate Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, who we saw vote for DeBerry again and again.
Another day, when Republican Rep. Dennis Roach was an hour and a half late, his seatmate Rep. Dale Ford voted for Roach a dozen times.
Ford later told NewsChannel 5 Investigates, "There's nothing wrong with it. It's done all of the time."
It was all done under Speaker Harwell's watch.
"You don't see anything wrong with that?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Harwell.
"That's certainly not a practice that I condone," she answered. "It doesn't violate House rules, but I don't condone it."
So why doesn't the ghost voting violate the House rules? Because the House Speaker and members decide when they want to follow the rules, and we found they rarely do – which is probably why you now see so many sticks in the House chambers.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Harwell, "What's the deal with the sticks?"
"I'm not familiar with the sticks," she said.
"You're saying you have not seen the sticks?"
"I'm not familiar with the sticks, no," Harwell said.
These sticks come in all shapes and sizes and seem to make voting for others a lot easier.
Incredibly, she claimed not to know about them, but just days earlier and just feet from Harwell, retiring Rep. Mike McDonald, D-Portland, made a big deal of passing his on. In front of the entire House, he announced, "I wanted to present this voting stick to my deskmate."
Speaker Harwell says she's not responsible for what we found going on in the House chambers.
"Those members are ultimately responsible to who? Their boss. And who is their boss? The voters of this state," she said.
She says as Speaker, when the House reconvenes, she doesn't plan to do anything different.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates said to Harwell, "People are upset about this and they say what lawmakers are doing is wrong. How can you stand there and say..."
Harwell interrupted to answer, "Oh, I didn't say it was right. As I said at the beginning of this interview, I don't condone the practice. It happened."
Speaker Harwell says the House was "under the rule" or following the voting rules about half of the time last session.
But it never happened any of the days we were there – and, we've spent hours watching the archived video of the session and have found only a handful of votes taken "under the rule."
Harwell served in the House for many years before becoming speaker.
During that time, she admits that when then-Vice President Dick Cheney came to town, she missed the session and asked another lawmaker to vote for her while she was gone. She claims she did it just that once.