Scandal puts spotlight on intern rules

Scandal puts spotlight on intern rules

July 25th, 2009 by Andy Sher in Politics State

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee officials say they may consider tightening written policies governing legislative interns' interactions with lawmakers after an affair between a state senator and an intern was unveiled this week.

"It might prompt us ... to consider rewording or changing some of our regulations," said Middle Tennessee State University political science professor Mark Byrnes, a longtime member of the state's five-member Academic Intern Committee.

The General Assembly's policies governing legislative interns do not ban consensual relationships between lawmakers and interns outside the legislature.

The questions come in light of a scandal involving state Sen. Paul Stanley, R-Germantown, whose affair with a 22-year-old intern led to an alleged blackmail plot by the woman's boyfriend, law enforcement officials have said.

A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation affidavit says Sen. Stanley, a married father of two, acknowledged "having developed a sexual relationship" with intern McKensie Morrison, a student at Austin Peay State University. An affidavit said Ms. Morrison acknowledged the relationship as well.

The TBI has charged Ms. Morrison's boyfriend, Joel Watts, 27, with text messaging Sen. Stanley and demanding a $10,000 payment in exchange for nude photos that Sen. Stanley took of Ms. Morrison in the lawmaker's Nashville apartment.

The General Assembly's two pages of "uniform policies" for interns contain a provision stating "interns should avoid any conduct or activities that would cause embarrassment or which might ethically, legally, or morally compromise them, their sponsoring institution, or the General Assembly."

Intern program administrator Donna Morgan said officials "send the message" to interns to avoid inappropriate fraternizing with lawmakers.

But Dr. Byrnes said enforcement is another matter among lawmakers and interns, who are all adults and in their junior or senior years in college or in graduate school.

"You're not likely to find out about such a relationship unless something like this happens," he said. "Basically, I think we have to rely on the good judgment of the legislators and interns. Sometimes that good judgment is lacking, unfortunately.

"From what I understand, this incident took place sort of outside her duties as an intern," Dr. Byrnes said. "It was two consenting adults, so I'm really not sure the program can do much other than give advice on issues like this."

In addition to the Academic Intern Committee, there is a Legislative Intern Committee comprised of top legislative leaders. The committees collectively act as the sponsoring committee for interns.

Lance Frizzell, spokesman for Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, the Senate speaker, said "it may be premature to evaluate the intern program right now, but certainly we review all programs within the Legislature regularly and certainly we should look at it next year and look at it with a close eye."

He said his understanding is that interns, who can number as many as 100 men and women, "are admonished to maintain a professional relationship with legislators and their staff and their office, and I can't imagine it (avoiding personal relationships with legislators) wouldn't be a part of their program or their orientation."

The current situation involving Sen. Stanley and Ms. Morrison is "a black eye to the program, no doubt about it," Dr. Byrnes said. "But the vast majority of students who go through the intern program have a wonderful experience and don't encounter this sort of personal turmoil. So I think long term there's not going to be any real effect."