NASHVILLE — By delaying his resignation from the Tennessee House's top post until Aug. 2, Republican Speaker Glen Casada is in a position potentially to impact the governance of a number of state boards and commissions for years, critics say.
That's because the speaker, currently under pressure by GOP leaders to step down earlier by the end of this month amid a swirl of controversies, is tasked under state law with naming members to 20 new or existing boards, commissions and councils dealing with various aspects of state government.
Among them is a new entity, the nine-member Lottery Corporation Sports Wagering Advisory Council established under the state's online sports gaming legislation that passed this spring. Casada gets three appointments to the panel, as do Senate Speaker Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, and Republican Gov. Bill Lee.
Another is the newly reconstituted 16-member Board of Judicial Conduct, which investigates and, when warranted, acts on complaints against judges. Casada gets four appointments on the board, one of which is required to be an attorney and three others who cannot be an attorney or a current or former judge.
Former Knoxville mayor Victor Ashe, an attorney, former Republican state senator and former U.S. ambassador to Poland, said he believes it's wrong for Casada to call shots on who gets on either entity.
"I find it just shocking that the disgraced House speaker gets to name anybody to a sports gambling commission and a judicial oversight panel," Ashe said. "I would think the Republican majority would want to prevent that from happening."
He sees it as one more reason why Casada needs to resign now instead of waiting another seven weeks.
The speaker only last week finally set the Aug. 2 resignation date, coming after he became embroiled in a series of controversies that began in late April and early May with revelations of sexually explicit texts he had exchanged with a top aide, Cade Cothren, who resigned amid the uproar.
On May 21, the House GOP Caucus voted 45-24 to say they no longer had confidence in Casada to head the chamber. Casada said after the vote that he hoped to work to regain members' trust. But after the governor stepped in to say he was prepared to call a special session to remove him, the speaker said he would, then delayed setting the date to take a European vacation before finally announcing his planned resignation date.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville said "there's simply no reason that Speaker Casada has not resigned."
It "only puts him in a position to meddle in schemes to perhaps try to retain power indirectly," Stewart said. "And now because Casada has not simply resigned, he's put himself in a position to improperly meddle with these boards. He needs to resign and let the speaker pro tem take charge of his duties."
Stewart added that "I haven't heard Speaker Casada articulate a single justification for his holding office for another day. He said he's going to resign. He needs to just make a clean break and resign so that the state can move forward."
Scott Gilmer, whom Casada elevated as his new chief of staff following Cothren's departure, said Friday he doesn't believe the speaker has made any appointments yet to the sports gambling or judicial conduct bodies.
"Obviously between now and July 1 would be ideal [on both boards], but I know the members of the gaming commission need to undergo a background check and that would take some work there," Gilmer said. "And that's not been done yet. It wouldn't be unusual for these to be made sometime in July."
Gilmer said some of the positions on the other boards and commissions are hold-overs, occupied by members whose terms have already expired but at least some of whom can continue serving until they are re-appointed or replaced. A number of existing appointments are filled by House representatives.
A list of the 20 boards, commissions and councils with appointments now up for consideration includes the TennCare Pharmacy Advisory Committee, Advisory Council on State Procurement, the State Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission, the Commission on Aging and Disability, and Energy Efficient Schools Council, each one of which has two positions up for appointment by the House speaker.
"My guess is I don't think the speaker will fill most of these," Gilmer said. "Probably most of these we'll leave to the next person. But if there's some more pressing ones like the Board of Judicial Conduct and the gaming commission, I think he could appoint those. But we haven't yet."
As for criticisms regarding the Sports Wagering Advisory Council and the Board of Judicial Conduct, Gilmer said "I think if he makes additional appointments, he would do it in consultation with members of leadership, something like that. Because obviously these appointments would be under scrutiny. I think it would be fair to say he would do these in consultation with members of leadership."
House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, who is working to get a special session in late June to replace Casada, said the previous two speakers he served with did that not only with leadership but with other House members and interested outside parties when making appointments.
"I think that remains true for this speaker, if they reach out to people within different professions, if the board involves a profession, they reach out to members of the public that are interested parties. And they reach out to leadership on both the Republican and Democratic side and also just members who are very interested in the subject matter of these boards and commissions."
Lamberth said "the business of government needs to proceed regardless of whether or not we're in the midst of transition from one speaker to another." And he recalled that appointees serve at the pleasure of a speaker. If a new speaker comes in "they can certainly evaluate each of these boards and commissions and make changes as they felt it appropriate," he said. So long as Casada continues as prior speakers did and "consults with leadership, other members of the legislature and any other interested party on who should be appointed, then I don't see a problem."
House Republican Caucus Chairman Cameron Sexton of Crossville said regarding any Casada appointments that "I think that he would run those by leadership or maybe having a meeting with leadership before making those appointments and just whether or not those appointments are renewals for the people who are currently on them which is a little different than putting someone new on there, obviously."
Revelations about the racist and sexist texts between Cothren and Casada, some of which were in a text message thread with an unidentified GOP political consultant, exploded in the final few days of this year's legislative session.
In one not involving Casada, Cothren called black people "idiots." In another, he labeled Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston as a "thug n——r." In one text involving Casada, he alluded to a West Tennessee area with a large black population with a racist meme. The speaker didn't respond to that.
But Casada did respond jokingly or approvingly to three sexist boasts made three years ago by Cothren, including one in which the aide said he had just had sex with a woman in the restroom of a Nashville hot chicken restaurant.
Cothren also boasted about using cocaine in a government building.
Other controversies included charges by a black activist and his attorney who say Cothren sought to frame the activist with an email with an altered time stamp for violating a no-contact order involving the speaker.
Then there were the three political operatives, one of whom was accused of having a "no show" job and the other two allowed to work from home one or two days a week. Staffers described them as "hall monitors."
And a number of legislators from both parties were angry or even fearful about the speaker's leadership and management style.
A Nashville television station reported that the FBI had asked questions about steps taken to pass a school voucher bill that nearly died on a 49-49 House vote before Casada began twisting members' arms.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.