Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Primer for politicians (page 1): Talk a lot about ethics. The suckers voters like to hear about ethics. If you go so far as to form a committee, be sure not to give it any real power, like subpoena or investigate powers. Better yet, make sure that the committee only meets when you ask for advice. That way, you don't ever have to convene the committee. If you actually name members, make sure they are all your cronies like-minded in their dedication to ethics.
Special ethics panel has never met

Three-year lull calls into question Bredesen's commitment, some say.

In the months after Gov. Phil Bredesen's inauguration, he talked big about ethics and about fairness, signing a series of executive orders that created a special ethics committee and a panel to ensure that state workers are promoted properly.

"One thing I want to do is return a higher degree of confidence to people in state government," Bredesen said at a February 2003 Cabinet meeting as he signed executive orders that would create what he called "the toughest ethics policy in the history of Tennessee."

But if the talk was big, the action was little, if any. The governor's special ethics committee, created in that Cabinet meeting, did not meet even once.

And the panel he created in October 2003 to ensure that the state promotions process was conducted fairly never met, either.

Now, after the Department of Safety's top leadership has been swept away in an ethics scandal over deep-seated cronyism in the Tennessee Highway Patrol, and with the governor's closest aide beset by his own ethics issues, some have started asking questions about why the governor has let these panels languish.

"I was bothered then," said printing company owner Gary Marlar of Nashville, who has begun following ethics issues since Bredesen took office. "Now, I feel I've been smacked in the face."

The reason that at least the governor's ethics committee never convened is "there have been no issues that have risen to the level that would require a recommendation from this body," Bredesen spokeswoman Lydia Lenker said. "Any issues that have come before the governor, he has dealt with quickly and with a firm hand."

The governor's critics say that the committee to examine hiring and promotions created by Bredesen in October 2003 might have uncovered cronyism in the Highway Patrol. A Tennessean investigation published last month showed that two-thirds of THP promotions under Bredesen's administration went to officers who gave money to his campaign, or had family members or political patrons who did.

More than half in that group were promoted even though they were competing against officers with higher promotion scores.

This panel "is advisory only," said Lenker, who confirmed that no one was ever appointed to the board. "It is not charged with any investigatory powers. As a part of our review of all boards and commissions, we have taken a look at this board to see if its functions are duplicative of other state boards, commissions and agencies. It is currently under review."

After Operation Tennessee Waltz, when federal agents arrested four sitting legislators in a bribery and extortion sting, Bredesen came alive on all things ethical. He began planning a special session on ethics. He put together a citizens panel that was to generate ideas on how to rein in a legislature perceived as greedy and out of control. The governor also put out his own ideas on what might be done.

The committee charged with overseeing fairness in hiring and promotion deals chiefly with fairness as it relates to race, gender and sexual orientation — and the Bredesen administration has never been accused of unfairness as it relates to those issues.

But some are seeing those efforts in a new light, with the realization that Bredesen's first big announcement on ethics just after he took office was followed by very little action. That has some legislators raising questions as they are about to embark on a special session on ethics that Bredesen himself called.

State Rep. Donna Rowland, R-Murfreesboro, said she was suspicious that Bredesen created the committees and never followed through. "I am not aware that those committees have even been established," Rowland said. "Why are they not being used for these investigations as step No. 1?"

And Rep. Glen Casada, R-College Park, said that it appeared there may be exceptions to the ethics rules for those closest to the governor.

"Like most Tennesseans, I thought you would treat your political appointees in the same manner as all state employees are treated," Casada said in a letter he wrote to Bredesen last week. "It now appears that friends of the Governor get special treatment."