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Indicted Dems urged to forgo ethics talks

NASHVILLE - Two indicted Democratic legislators are being urged to stay away from the special legislative session on ethics that begins today, while a leading Republican stonewalled questions Monday on whether he is the target of a criminal investigation.
/ Source: The Knoxville News-Sentinel

NASHVILLE - Two indicted Democratic legislators are being urged to stay away from the special legislative session on ethics that begins today, while a leading Republican stonewalled questions Monday on whether he is the target of a criminal investigation.Sen. Jim Bryson, R-Franklin, filed the resolution calling on Sens. Kathryn Bowers, D-Memphis, and Ward Crutchfield, D-Chattanooga, to "refrain from participating" in the ethics session. Bryson, in turn, came under attack from Democrats.

Bowers and Crutchfield have pleaded innocent to federal bribery charges. Bryson said he initially sent both senators a "private letter" asking them not to attend the special session. When they did not respond, Bryson said he felt obliged to file the resolution and did so on Monday.

"We have to rebuild the public trust, and the best way to do that_ is not to have legislators under indictment debating ethics bills," said Bryson. "It's a pretty common sense concept."

Crutchfield, asked how he would respond to the resolution, said Monday that "I'll be there representing the people who elected me to the state Senate" during the special session. Bowers was not available for comment, but has previously said she plans to the present and voting.

Other Democrats said Republicans were "playing partisan games" and questioned why Republican lawmakers were not sending Congress a resolution urging that indicted U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, refrain from participating in congressional proceedings.

Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, suggested that if Republicans wanted to block two Democrats from voting, they should voluntarily stop two Republicans from voting to avoid taking a bigger partisan advantage.

State Democratic Chairman Bob Tuke also issued a statement accusing Bryson of a personal conflict of interest because he serves on a TennCare oversight committee while working "as a consultant to Pfizer Inc. and other major drug companies." Bryson said there was no conflict and the contention was "just silly."

On another front, most Republican senators interviewed declined to say whether they think Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Jeff Miller of Cleveland should remain in his GOP leadership position. Some did say they expect the matter to come up for discussion among Republican senators, who are all invited to a breakfast today by Senate Majority Leader Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville.

Some legislative staffers who worked for Miller have appeared before a federal grand jury in Nashville. Tuke and other Democrats have also raised questions about a reported romantic relationship between Miller and one of those staffers.

"I'm not going to respond to Bob Tuke," said Miller in an encounter with reporters Monday.

Asked if he plans to remain as Republican Caucus chairman, Miller refused to give any reply whatsoever.

Asked if he had received a "target letter" from federal prosecutors, typically sent to persons who are the target of a federal criminal investigation, Miller also refused to reply - turning away from reporters and staring silently ahead as he waited in line for an elevator.

Miller did participate in a special committee's hearing Monday on whether Sen. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis, should be officially seated as a senator despite a challenge to her 13-vote victory in a special election by her Republican opponent.

The special election was held after her brother, former Sen. John Ford, resigned following his bribery indictment.

The committee voted to postpone a decision for another two weeks while a TBI investigation is completed, though Ophelia Ford will be allowed to hold the Senate seat on a "provisional" basis in the meantime.

Three Democrats on the six-member committee voted for the delay, joined by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Mike Williams, R-Maynardville, who chairs the committee. Republicans Miller and Ramsey voted against the delay, preferring to push for a showdown vote that could void the election and require another one.

"It's just a foul election and it needs to be done over," Miller argued at one point during the hearing.

Of eight Republican senators asked Monday whether they supported Miller remaining as their caucus chairman, only one, Sen. Steve Southerland of Morristown, offered his continued backing.

"He has raised more money than any other chairman we've had," said Southerland.

He added that, as he understands things, Miller has done nothing wrong.

Six of the Republican senators said they did not want to comment or that they wanted to have a personal discussion with Miller to better understand his situation.

Fowler, on the other hand, said, "I think it would be in Jeff's best interest to concentrate on issues at home and not bear the added responsibility of carrying the caucus. That's a lot of work."

"We all need a little margin in our lives and Jeff has a lot on his plate that he didn't have a year ago," said Fowler. "It's up to him. If he feels he can fulfill his responsibility to the caucus, then that's the decision he needs to make."

Tom Humphrey may be reached at 615-242-7782.