Tennessee ranks low on ethics rules as Ford deals stir debate - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Tennessee ranks low on ethics rules as Ford deals stir debate

The ethics debate stirred by state Sen. John Ford's work as a private business consultant is drawing attention to how Tennessee supervises its public officials. Good government advocates say improvements could be made. Tennessee is one of 27 states with no independent ethics commissions, leaving lawmakers themselves to police their own. "It puts them in an impossible position. You're having to sit in judgment of your colleagues," said Scott Trotter, a lawyer who helped lead a push for an ethics commission in Arkansas. "It's always controversial and they're usually divided between Republicans and Democrats so it's impossible to reach a consensus."

In Tennessee, ethics committees of the General Assembly investigate when lawmakers like Ford, a Memphis Democrat, are questioned about their business affairs. The Senate Ethics Committee is looking into Ford's work as a consultant and whether he sought state business for his employers. Ford says he did nothing illegal or unethical. Ford has acknowledged failing to report some of his consulting work, but that, he says, was an oversight. But even when financial disclosure rules are followed in Tennessee, the public is not told much, some open government advocates say. The Center for Public Integrity ranks Tennessee 44th among the states in the strength of its financial disclosure laws. Tennessee requires legislators to fill out reports listing general sources of income over $1,000 a year for themselves and their spouses. They are not required, however, to give specifics or say how much money they made. In Washington state, which the Center for Public Integrity ranks No. 1 in financial disclosure, lawmakers must list ranges of income from various sources - between $15,000 to $29,999; $30,000 to $74,999 or $75,000 or more. Kentucky set up an ethics commission following a corruption scandal in the state Legislature in 1993. "Unfortunately, that's what drives these sorts of laws," said John Schaff, a lawyer for the Kentucky commission. "It's generally when you have some transgression that you have the public outcry to create some strong laws."

The ethics debate in Tennessee is just beginning. On Thursday, the Tennessee House unanimously passed legislation that would make it illegal for lawmakers and other top officials to accept consulting fees from any entity seeking to do business with state government. It also would make it a misdemeanor for a lawmaker not to disclose such consulting done by immediate family members. The state attorney general's office, meanwhile, has announced it will provide legal assistance to the Senate Ethics Committee during its review of Ford's business affairs. Dick Williams, chairman of Common Cause of Tennessee, said stricter ethics rules will help lawmakers, too. "A lot of legislators and lobbyists are doing a better job than the public thinks," Williams said. "Passing good legislation would show the public they're better than what they think."

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

Powered by Frankly