Senate unanimously passes ethics reform measure - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Senate unanimously passes ethics reform measure

Major ethics reform aimed squarely at the criticism swirling around beleaguered Sen. John Ford unanimously cleared the Senate Thursday, but not before Ford accused colleagues of "suffering from a seared conscience of shame." The sweeping legislation makes it a crime for public officials, ranging from city council members to the governor's Cabinet, to take private money to influence government contracts or to engage in influence peddling. The bill now goes to the House, which earlier passed a different version, for representatives to consider the tougher Senate legislation. The House could accept the amendments or the bill could end up in a conference committee to resolve the differences. Senators beefed up the bill measurably, including raising the penalty from a class A misdemeanor to a class C felony - which can be punished with up to 15 years in prison. A felon is also banned from holding public office and loses his voting rights. At the same time, senators decided to exempt current lawmakers and Cabinet officials from a ban on spouses engaging in lobbying. The "grandfather" clause will allow the spouses of officials such as House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and Human Services Commissioner Gina Lodge to continue working as lobbyists. Lawmakers have been grappling with a flood of ethics proposals, trying in earnest to improve an image tarnished by mounting criticism of Ford's business and consulting ties to government contractors. Ford is accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from companies with TennCare and other state contracts and is under state and federal investigation. The Memphis Democrat voted for the bill, but not before trying unsuccessfully to fend off an amendment requiring disclosure of any money earned from clients with business ties to the state. Other senators joined him, worried the far-reaching provision would require detailed disclosure of even the most mundane business dealings. "There are at least eight or nine people in this Senate - you know who are - that are insurance brokers," said Ford, who sells insurance to TennCare contractors. "There is no such thing as doing business in insurance if you don't do business with somebody that does business with the state of Tennessee."

Ford, during debate over a dozen amendments, accused lawyers in the Senate of wrangling exemptions to their profession while leaving non-lawyers and consultants like himself subject to felony prosecution. "This bill, with all these amendments, is nothing but a blatant attempt to exclude layers," he said. "A lawyer is a counselor, a counselor is a consultant." Ford, who argued he was for the bill, said all the "crazy amendments" were watering down the measure. "In each case, there was a lawyer behind the amendments," he said. "Some of all you is stuck on this word consulting, it is like being stuck on stupidity ... what is wrong is that we are excluding attorneys. "I am not going to play the race card with you, but I just want to tell you there is not a single black lawyer in the entire General Assembly." Saying "I'm for ethics," Ford also castigated members for getting caught up in a reform frenzy that left them "gung-ho" to pass anything. "Some of you are all stuck on what the media has been saying to you - it's got you so confused you don't even know it," he said. "It is absolutely ridiculous, some of you are suffering from a seared conscience of shame. And the worst part about it is, you don't even understand why." Bill sponsor Roy Herron, D-Dresden, compared the mistrust now surrounding the General Assembly to the infamous "Rocky Top" federal probe that entangled lawmakers and state officials in a bingo gambling scandal. "Not since those days in the late 1980s have we seen such a cloud of suspicion and distrust," he said. Herron also noted the ongoing federal investigation into how the administration of former Gov. Don Sundquist awarded state contracts. "We do know where it should stop," said Herron, who fought back a number of attempts to delay a vote until next week. "And that's here, and that's now." Regardless of what the House does with the bill, the Senate may get tough rules of its own. Senators are scheduled Monday to vote on a separate rule change that would put much of the ban on lobbying and consulting in the Senate's in-house rules. That ban could go into place without the consent of the House. Gov. Phil Bredesen said Thursday he hopes the General Assembly will agree on ethics legislation. "I certainly would love to sign some ethics reform legislation," he said. "I think some of the things that have happened in the last few weeks have underlined the need to get more specific about these issues in ethics and would love to see a bill that I could sign."

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

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