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Tennessee Legislators Get An "F" in Ethics

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The news is not good for Tennessee legislators who reconvene in Nashville in less than two months.

Lawmakers have flunked the ethics test from one watchdog agency. The Center for Public Integrity is one of the country's oldest and largest nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative organizations.

The Center says, Tennessee lawmakers have a big problem being reminded to do the right thing on Capitol Hill..

The grade is in for Tennessee lawmakers, and it's an "F" in ethics from the Center for Public Integrity..

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick admits, the state Ethics Commission has not been able to do its job of watching what lawmakers spend and putting lobbying activities under a microscope.

"I think where we failed was in giving the Ethics Commission to actually keep a close eye on the legislators," McCormick said after seeing the report.

The ethics commission was formed immediately after Tennessee "waltzed," into one of the worst political bribery scandals in state history. Ward Crutchfield, Chris Newton, Charles Love and William Cotton, among several state legislators and public servants, convicted for taking bribes to pass bogus legislation.

"Even the fact of these indictments and arrests are a challenge and a sadness to us all," said then-Governor Phil Bredesen at a news conference.

It wasn't two years after Governor Bredesen formed the Ethics Commission in 2006 to keep lawmakers honest, its director was fired because he couldn't get along with them.. Soon after, the state started getting bad marks from the Center for Public Integrity.

"It's something I had already suggested we needed to have the Ethics Committee get together and review this anyway before this report came out," says McCormick.

McCracken Poston says that may be difficult. As a legislator, he helped establish ethics rules for lawmakers in Georgia 20 years ago..

"The problem is, state officials have huge egos," Poston says. "They don't want some out of state agency measuring their accountability. But accountability is accountability."

He says, as a rule, lawmakers need ethics agencies to monitor how they use their power as elected officials..

"It would be something that I think needs to be done, but it's not likely to be done, as long as those in power are the ones being watched," he says.

And while McCormick falls into that category, he says he IS concerned about Tennessee's ethics grade.

"Can I get a commitment from you that this report is going to generate some change?" I asked the House Majority Leader. "Well I don't know if I want to give (the Center for Public Integrity) that much credit," he says, "but I think whether this report was out there or not, we do need to make some change."

But an ethics commission aside, perhaps the only way to hold lawmakers accountable, comes when everyday people demand it.

Unfortunately, "the only time that happens, and the only time the public reacts, is when there is a scandal," Poston says.

By the way, just this year, Tennessee saw another state legislator under indictment..

Representative Joe Armstrong of Knoxville was accused of tax fraud in a scheme to make money off an increase in the taxes on cigarettes. His federal case is pending..

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Although Tennessee lawmakers received an "F" in the area of ethics, the state got an overall grade of "D" for those aspects of state government. The full report is here.

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