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Covenant families file ethics complaint against Tennessee state Sen. Todd Gardenhire

(Tennessean) From the Tennessean: Families of the six Covenant School shooting victims — who have intervened in a lawsuit seeking to block release of


From the Tennessean: Families of the six Covenant School shooting victims — who have intervened in a lawsuit seeking to block release of public police records related to the shooting — this week filed an ethics complaint seeking to kill a bill that would prohibit non-governmental entities from intervening in public records lawsuits.


Erin Kinney, mother of 9-year-old Covenant shooting victim William Kinney, filed a complaint this week with the Senate Ethics Committee on behalf of the families of all six victims, alleging that Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, could personally benefit from passage of a bill he is sponsoring to block interventions in public records lawsuits in the future.


Gardenhire is a party in a lawsuit against the Metro Nashville Police Department seeking release of public investigative records pertaining to the Covenant shooting last year. The Tennessean is also a party in the case seeking release of the public records.


The Covenant School, Covenant Presbyterian Church, and Covenant School families have all intervened in the case seeking to block release of the records. Last year, an appeals court judge ruled that the groups have standing to intervene in the case.


“I don’t have any way at all to personally gain from this legislation,” Gardenhire told The Tennessean in an interview, noting that the lawsuit he is party to does not request recovery of attorney fees if successful. “There is no way in the world I could personally profit, except to be able to draft legislation that will help us figure out how to stop something like this from happening in the future.”


Gardenhire filed Senate Bill 2105 in January, seeking to prohibit non-governmental parties from intervening in public records cases to prevent their release. Gardenhire told The Tennessean he sponsored the bill at the request of the Tennessee Coalition on Open Government.


The Senate unanimously passed the bill last month. The House of Representatives is scheduled to take it up this week.


“This is an effort to scare House members into not passing it and to influence the judge’s decision come Tuesday,” Gardenhire said. “Their interference in this is totally wrong.”


In the ethics complaint, the Covenant families allege Gardenhire “created a substantial ethical conflict of interest,” by sponsoring a bill that would bar outside groups like them from intervening in public records lawsuits.


They allege Gardenhire’s sponsorship of the bill violated a section of the Senate Code of Ethics, that prohibits senators from accepting bribes, loans from lobbyists, or expensive gifts, and bars them from “misuse of the Senator’s office for personal financial gain,” according to copies of the complaint published by multiple local news sites.


“Senator Gardenhire stands to personally benefit in his current TPRA litigation by using his position as a State Senator to pass legislation in order to eliminate opposing parties (specifically those of crime victims, including well over 100 children, the families of homicide victims, a school and a church) and thereby significantly increase his odds of prevailing in the pending litigation,” Kinney writes.


But Gardenhire’s bill would take effect upon becoming law, and does not seek to apply retroactively. As such, it would be unlikely to have any impact on the lawsuit to which he is a party, in which an appeals court has already ruled that interveners have standing.


“In the Tennessee legislature, we do not pass bills that have a retroactive application – which makes the bill that I filed have absolutely no consequence to the lawsuits that are currently going on,” Gardenhire told The Tennessean.


Families ask the Senate Ethics Committee to open an inquiry on Gardenhire’s conduct, and require the bill to be withdrawn.


By Senate rules, ethics complaints filed against a Senate member remain strictly confidential until the Ethics Committee finds probable cause to pursue an ethics investigation. As of publication, the Senate Ethics Committee has not made any public indication of a meeting that would have resulted from a complaint.


“Senate rules require ethics complaints remain confidential unless or until the committee determines probable cause exists that a violation has occurred,” Adam Kleinheider, a spokesperson for Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, told The Tennessean in an email. “If and when that determination is made, a public meeting of the committee would then be held.”


Senate ethics rules allow lawmakers to sponsor and vote on legislation from which they could personally benefit, provided that they publicly declare their personal interest in any bill before a vote. For example, earlier this month, 17 senators declared a personal interest before voting on a $1.9 billion franchise tax bill. Gardenhire did not file such a disclosure on Senate Bill 2105, according to the Senate Clerk’s Office.


In the Covenant case, The Tennessean has no plans to publish the writings verbatim and has sought to center coverage on public policy, the victims and the community.