NASHVILLE — Members of Tennessee's 112th General Assembly begin their annual session this week with some members of the GOP-led House under a cloud as a federal investigation erupted publicly last week when FBI agents searched homes and offices of three legislators and several current and former staffers.
While federal officials haven't publicly stated what they're probing, a number of legislators believe that given the home and office of disgraced former Republican House Speaker Glen Casada of Franklin was among those searched, at least part of the focus could be on the controversial 2019 passage of Gov. Bill Lee's school voucher bill.
Critics charged at the time that various promises to fund pet projects and take other actions were extended by GOP lawmakers to pass fellow Republican Lee's voucher bill. All denied wrongdoing. A Democratic lawmaker said he was offered a top administration job by someone in the legislature and another charged there was "bribery" involved.
Agents also searched the legislative offices and homes of two other House members, Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, a business and political consultant, and newly elected Rep. Todd Warner, R-Lewisburg, who in November defeated then-Rep. Rick Tillis, R-Lewisburg, in a contest filled with direct mail and social media attacks coming from a dark-money company.
Nashville-based WZTV quoted an unnamed federal law enforcement official saying the investigation is looking at the laundering of money in the political ads blasting Tillis.
In a Sunday Times Free Press interview, Tennessee Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, said, "of course nobody's been arrested. They've just had search warrants.
"But," said McNally, who as a freshman senator in the late 1980s helped expose public corruption in the legislature on a horse racing bill and state-regulated charitable bingo, "if somebody's arrested, I think they should resign."
Tennessee's 112th General Assembly convenes at noon on Tuesday for an organizational session where lawmakers are expected to re-elect current leaders, including House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville. He replaced Casada in mid-2019 after Casada was forced out by a GOP Caucus no-confidence vote amid controversies over the school voucher vote as well as the then-speaker's iron-fisted style.
McNally has no opposition either.
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said he hasn't spoken with Smith, a former Tennessee Republican Party chair whose attorney Ben Rose said in a statement last week that she "intends to cooperate fully with the investigation in all respects. While she would have preferred to do so voluntarily, Robin understands this may not have been possible."
Rose also said Smith "is not the target of the investigation, and she has not done anything wrong. Please understand that due to the ongoing investigation, Robin will not be providing any further comment."
Gardenhire said of the investigation that "I would say it's very much on people's minds."
He added he has more personal concerns about this week's joint House and Senate GOP caucuses meeting to nominate the three constitutional officers who will later be elected when the House and Senate, both controlled by GOP legislators, meet.
"I'm more worried about the [coronavirus pandemic] than the FBI investigation," Gardenhire said. "We're going to have that caucus meeting and the House members aren't required to wear a mask."
Lawmakers are expected to elect Jason Mumpower to replace retiring state Comptroller Justin Wilson and re-elect Secretary of State Tre Hargett and state Treasurer David Lillard. All three are Republicans.
Saying he hasn't spoken with Smith, Rep. Yusuf Hakeem of Chattanooga, the delegation's lone Democrat, noted, "I guess we in the public don't have the facts and either way my thought is to pray for her and her family. Just in a way of speaking to be singled out like that can be very stressful for a family."
Hakeem said, "I don't think that the FBI would spend time and money unless they felt they had reason to suspect some things going awry. But I guess we've seen in the past where that perception has not always been proven to be the case. let's see how it plays out. I don't want to tag anyone as having done something wrong because of an investigation."
Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, who is the new chair of the seven-member Hamilton County legislative delegation, said about the investigation that, "I think we're just going to have to put that aside" for the time being. "It's definitely a distraction, but we all have to to remember it's an investigation."
Noting Smith attorney Rose's statement that Smith is not a target, Hazlewood said, "we don't have the information, we don't have details so we'll just have to put that aside."
Lee has also called a special session for the following week to act on a public school phonics program that he plans to devote an estimated $100 million in new federal coronavirus relief and education funding toward implementing.
McNally said he thinks lawmakers can wrap up their organizational session quickly and devote some time to studying Lee's proposal and have it ready to consider after the special session.
During the regular session, lawmakers also will consider the controversial federal block grant for the state's TennCare Medicaid program that was approved just last week by the outgoing Trump administration.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.