Can Legislature Police Its Own Ethics? - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Capitol Hill Corruption

Can Legislature Police Its Own Ethics?

(Story created: 2/25/03)

A controversial land deal involving powerful state Sen. Jerry Cooper is drawing more attention from federal and state investigators, NewsChannel 5 has learned.

It's a deal first exposed by our own Perks of Power investigation.

Right now, agents are focused on the man who bought the land, not Cooper.

Still, individuals who have spoken with investigators say they are now expressing interest in all aspects of the land deal.

The investigation, which is being coordinated out of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chattanooga, involves the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, as well as federal and state auditors.

Still, NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams discovered, Cooper's actions revive old questions about whether the legislature can police itself.

"The problem with Senate and House ethics committees, both in Washington and in state legislatures, is they hardly ever meet and they hardly ever do anything," says Charles Lewis, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity.

Lewis has spent years investigating the conflicts of lawmakers -- like the land deal involving Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jerry Cooper, D-Morrison.

That deal, Lewis says, "is using a public position for private gain, and that is a conflict of interest -- and in most places in America, that is illegal."

It was a deal involving a piece of land that Cooper couldn't sell... until he convinced state officials to commit $300,000 of your tax money to build a rail connection to the property. That commitment... on top of another $500,000 state loan to help his buyer purchase equipment... brought the senator a sale price of $1.3 million dollars.

"That piece of property was going to bring 40-50 jobs to my home county," Cooper says. "Yes, I did -- could make money off that property if that rail spur came in -- without question."

That despite the Senate's own ethics rules, which say it's a "conflict of interest" for a senator to act expecting a "direct monetary gain."

To that, Cooper offers a curious defense.

"Were we in session when all that went down -- I don't think so," Cooper tells Phil Williams.

"You were a state senator, weren't you?"

"What am I supposed to do -- call a special session of the General Assembly?"

So, Phil Williams asks Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Douglas Henry Jr., "Does it matter whether you are in session or out of session?"

"No, sir, it does not," Henry replied.

"So if it's unethical in session, it's also unethical out of session?"

"That's correct, yes."

Yet, critics argue that lawmakers know they have little to fear from such ethics committees.

"Can you think of a single case where the Senate Ethics Committee has taken action against a member?" Williams asks Henry.


Lewis responds, "Honestly, that's pathetic. I guess they would say there's no problem with ethics in Tennessee."

"It's not pathetic," the Ethics Committee chairman replies, "because nobody has filed a complaint. The rules are there for everybody to read. You've got to file a complaint if you want the Ethics Committee to function -- and nobody has done that."

And what about state laws? Well, get this: Tennessee is one of just five states that don't make such conflicts illegal.

"It appears to me the state legislature has conveniently made sure no one can investigate them or prosecute them for conflicts of interest," Lewis adds.

Over in the House, some insiders note that their own Ethics Committee was well represented at an elegant dinner provided by a big insurance lobbyist who assured members of House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh's inner circle that their votes would bring good things.

"As long as we receive support from you, you will definitely receive support from us," she said, to the group's hearty applause.

Henry says, "I think it's more likely that we would police ourselves than was the case 30 to 40 years ago."

Lewis argues Cooper's case should give them a chance to prove it.

"What will the state Senate Ethics Committee do -- and what will the state Senate do? Does this offend them, or is this business as usual?"

Henry says the committee can't act unless someone makes a written complaint. But, he says, any Tennessean can file a complaint.

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