NASHVILLE - Without debate, House State Government Subcommittee members this morning approved legislation that could eliminate the State Ethics Commission established three years ago in the wake of the Tennessee Waltz corruption probe.
House Bill 506, sponsored by Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, would transfer the duties of the ethics commission to the Registry of Election Finance if lawmakers this year decide not to extend the life of the panel, which is up for "sunset" review.
During the Tennessee Waltz, four then-current lawmakers and a lawmaker-turned lobbyist were caught up in an FBI-sponsored corruption sting. Among them were then-Sen. Ward Crutchfield, D-Chattanooga, and then-Rep. Chris Newton, R-Cleveland, who later pleaded guilty to bribery related charges.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who was in the subcommittee on another bill, defended the House Bill 506 and accused news organizations of giving a one-sided picture of what the legislation does.
The move would be to save money, not eliminate ethics laws that ban most wining and dining, force special interests to disclose in broad terms how much money they're spending to influence legislation and created the Ethics Commission to hear ethical accusations against lawmakers, he said.
"Keep in my mind if we do decide to merge these two and become one to actually save money and become more efficient, not one law in the state of Tennessee is going to be changed," he said. "The very ethics law that we passed back in 2005 will remain on the books. It's just a question of whether you need two boards doing almost the same thing."
He said the Ethics Commission can be folded into the Registry of Election Finance, which oversees campaign finance laws and disclosures, without overburdening either agency's ability to perform its duties. He charged that the Ethics Commission, championed by Gov. Phil Bredesen, has turned into a "typical government bureaucracy" with too many employees.
Ethics Commission members are notorious for lengthy meetings where sometimes-contentious members can dispute at length their own meeting minutes. Some members also have chilly relations with Executive Director Bruce Androphy, whose operation of the agency has sometimes angered lobbyists.