Less Accountability? House Makes Filing Ethics Complaints More Difficult

The Tennessee House of Representatives voted on Thursday to make it harder for its lawmakers to file an ethics complaint against another member of the lower chamber. 

The new rule, presented by state Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough), requires House members to seek the signature of a second state representative before submitting a complaint. 

During the floor debate, state Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville) said requiring a second legislator’s signature might create a situation where a legitimate grievance isn’t reviewed because a second lawmaker might fear political retribution from House leadership.

“The way I’m reading it, we’re making it harder to get an ethics complaint filed,” Stewart said. “…perhaps because of pressure, someone can’t file an ethics complaint.”

Though he was speaking on a different matter earlier in the floor debate, Rep. David Hawk (R-Greeneville) validated Stewart’s concern in remarks where he laid bare a history of a top-down, punitive culture at the state capitol. Emphasis below is ours.

“But this is a vote right here that if you allow these rule changes to go forward, you’ll allow yourself to be governed by fear because you’re afraid of what the repercussions might be,” Hawk said. “I lived under an iron-fisted leadership for six years. That’s fine. I was there. I’ve had a breathe of fresh air where we can say anything that’s on our mind within reason without offending anyone in this body.”

Ethics complaint process was working

When the two-signature rule was discussed, state Rep. G. A. Hardaway (D-Memphis) asked if the change was precipitated by a problem with the existing system. “Have we had abuse of ethics complaints being filed?” Hardaway asked. 

Hill, who led the committee that wrote the rules for the 2019-2020 legislative session, told members he was unaware of any abuse under the previous ethics complaint process. Nashville Public Radio reported

Some Republican lawmakers also expressed concerns, noting that only five ethical complaints have been filed in the last eight years.

Hardaway continued: “I think that every member has a right to speak and act on behalf of your constituents without having to get the approval of a big brother or a big sister before you do so.”

The new rules where adopted by the House with a vote of 80-16 with two members abstaining. 

Tennessee ranks poorly in legislative accountability, ethics enforcement

According to a 2015 study published by the State Integrity Investigation, a comprehensive assessment of state government accountability and transparency, Tennessee earned a D grade for the systems in place to deter corruption in state government. In the categories of Legislative Accountability and Ethics Enforcement Agencies, Tennessee scored a D- and F respectively.