Ethics Committee Dogged by Ethical Questions - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

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Ethics Committee Dogged by Ethical Questions

(Story created: 7/12/05)

FIRST ON 5: They are the lawmakers who are charged with developing ethics reform to clean up Capitol Hill. But many of them have been at the center of our NewsChannel 5 investigations of lawmaker ethics.

Six weeks after a public corruption scandal that shocked the state Capitol, the joint legislative ethics-reform committee is the group that legislative leaders think can fix the problem.

"Is this the best group of people to decide the future of ethics reform?" NewsChannel 5 chief investigative reporter Phil Williams asked House Majority Leader Kim McMillan, D-Clarksville.

"Oh, I think this is a great group of people," McMillan replied. "I think they are fully informed."

But take a look at the face of ethics reform, and you'll also see the face of controversy.

"I don't have anything to hide," said Sen. Jeff Miller, R-Cleveland.

Miller has admitted that he accepted $1,000 cash from the same undercover company seen here in FBI video paying former Senate chairman John Ford.

It's money that Miller says he'll eventually report as a campaign contribution.

"I put it with all my other campaign contributions," he tells Phil Williams.

"Would you provide proof that you did that?" Williams asked.

"My word should be enough for you, Phil."

There's also the committee's Senate chairman, Mike Williams, R-Maynardville.. 

Earlier this year, our investigation discovered that Williams used campaign funds to buy NASCAR tickets that went to pay off a debt to a former girlfriend.

"I take full responsibility, Phil," the senator said at the time. "I'm not hiding from you or anyone else. I made a mistake on this."

Then, there's House chairperson Lois Deberry and majority leader Kim McMillan. 

Both attended a fancy dinner two years ago at the upscale Mario's restaurant, where our hidden cameras caught an insurance lobbyist promising to take care of the legislative leaders.

"As long as we receive support from you, you will definitely receive support from us," the lobbyist said, drawing a round of applause.

"Did she pay for it at Mario's?" Deberry asked about the lobbyist hosting the event.

"Did you pay for it?" Phil Williams replied.

"I probably didn't eat," she said, before breaking into laughter.

There's also the House Democratic Caucus chairman Randy Rinks.

Earlier this year, our investigation discovered that, on filings with the state's Election Registry, he reported using $38,000 in campaign funds to pay his American Express for "food, gas, lodging." 

That came at the same time that he collected $58,000 in taxpayer money to cover his living expenses in Nashville.

"Would you be willing to provide your American Express bills?" Williams asked Rinks.

"I will to the Registry," he replied. "I will to the Registry."

"To us?"

"To the Registry."

"But not to us?"

"No."

The Registry of Election Finance never asked.

And majority leader McMillan just went to work for a big Nashville law firm that employs a team that lobbies the legislature.

"Do you have a conflict when it comes to this issue?" Williams asked her.

"I don't think so," she replied. "In fact, I've worked very hard to make sure there is a Chinese wall between myself and those members of the lobbying corps at the law firm that I work for."

But activist Ben Cunningham says, "These are people that have been inside the system."

He's skeptical about whether the group of insiders will be willing to bite the hands that feed them.

"They will be the people who tend to kind of chip around the edges and make small changes and feel good about what they've done. But they will not make dramatic changes."

McMillan says committee members are listening to Tennesseans and that the public should trust them to come up with real reform.

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