Within hours of the Phil Williams report about TN House GOP caucus vice chair Scotty Campbell’s alleged sexual harassment of legislative interns, Campbell had resigned. Even Phil was blown away by how quickly it happened, basically saying he had never seen anything like it in his storied career.
But despite the speed of Campbell’s demise, many questions remained. Why did it take Phil’s report to trigger any consequences? Who knew about the details of the investigation? What was Speaker Sexton’s role in this ugly ordeal?
Sexton was quick to deny any knowledge of the details of the investigation, and majority leader William Lamberth was right there at a press conference to back him up, pointing to the policy governing harassment allegations and saying it protected the victim by keeping the details quiet even from the speaker.
But who is really being protected? Obviously the victim’s confidentiality is paramount, but more and more it’s seeming like what’s really being protected is the speaker from any culpability for his handling – or mishandling – of the situation, and the lack of consequences Campbell faced until the situation became public.
The policy governing harassment complaints itself makes it clear all complaints are to go right to the speaker. And since that initial report we now know more about what went on in the wake of the complaint – including approved expenses taxpayers covered that were shelled out to the tune of nearly $10,000, including almost $1000 in CASH.
Even the intern herself said “it felt like they were trying to buy my silence.”
So who signed the checks? Who approved the expenses, including the cash handout?
Speaker Sexton has pointed the finger at the 4 members of the ethics subcommittee: Rep. Bill Beck (D), Rep, Karen Camper (D), Rep. Pat Marsh (R), and Rep. Sam Whitson (R).
Sexton very clearly is trying to shield himself from blame by using the ethics subcommittee as cover, despite the fact that we know FOR SURE Sexton knew about the Campbell findings as early as March 29th, yet Campbell was met with no consequences until voluntarily resigning 3 weeks later – even as he voted to expel the Tennessee Three for speaking up for common sense gun laws.
We have reached out to each of the 4 subcommittee members to confirm Sexton’s story about them approving the expenses.
2 ignored us entirely.
1 is staying quiet, pointing to the policies governing their committee as the reason they “Can’t talk about that.”
The 4th was not willing to answer anything specifically about the expenses concerning this particular situation, but was willing to answer a more general question: “Does the subcommittee have the power to approve expenses when it comes to sexual harassment allegations?”
The answer from the 4th subcommittee member: “TO MY KNOWLEDGE, NO.”
If that’s true, that means the subcommittee clearly didn’t have a hand in approving those expenses. Which means Speaker Sexton is lying to Phil Williams, and to the public.
What the member is saying makes sense. Everyone we have spoken to at the legislature says they can’t even buy a lamp in that building without the speaker’s sign-off, so it defies logic that $10,000 in taxpayer funds would be spent without his approval, particularly the nearly $1000 in cash.
And again, if Sexton did approve those expenses, and he did know about the Campbell details long before Campbell’s departure, then Speaker Sexton is lying, and the people of Tennessee deserve to know.
Sexton was clearly counting on the subcommittee to maintain their silence to keep folks believing it. An ethics subcommittee allowing itself to be used as cover in that way would seem to be downright unethical – but 3 of the 4 appear to be willing to let that happen.
As for why this 4th member feels the need to remain anonymous when answering a basic procedural question, that seems to speak to a culture of fear and intimidation that permeates the entire capitol under the Sexton regime – one that was apparent in the leaked audio from the GOP caucus meeting we posted a few weeks back regarding the Tennessee Three expulsions, which were in themselves a silencing of dissent and intimidation of a jaw-dropping, undemocratic scale.
The silence of the ethics subcommittee members also begs the question: What does Sexton have on them that they would be willing to provide cover for his lies? Especially when the lies are concerning such an important issue – the sexual harassment of young interns by men in power, one would think they would feel the need to speak up.
Serving on an ethics subcommittee should have 1 requirement: A commitment to the truth. Allowing the speaker to use them as a smoke screen to lie and cover-up his own failures would be the opposite of ethical. And if speaking about who covered the expenses is a policy violation, Sexton already violated the policy by pointing the finger at them.
We asked TN House Dems caucus chair Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville) for comment. His response:
“Having never participated in or served on this “double-secret” subcommittee, I cannot speak from personal knowledge about how it operates or what power it wields. However, I know of no rule or authority that would allow a four member group of legislators to unilaterally, secretly appropriate taxpayer funds for any purpose.Also, it is my understanding that practically every decision made in the House goes through the Speaker’s office. The Speaker’s office controls everything from assigning legislators’ desks on the floor, committees and specific parking spots to approving staff and office furniture. Now, if someone offered or made a cash payment, as was reported, that is a whole other issue. Such a payment would circumvent all formal channels of normal expenditures or be pulled out of a “petty cash” drawer somewhere in this building that most of us don’t know about.”
AGAIN, the anonymous Ethics Subcommittee member’s response when we asked if the subcommittee has the power to approve expenses in sexual harassment (cover-up?) situations: “TO MY KNOWLEDGE, NO.”
So if the ethics subcommittee didn’t approve the expenses, Sexton must have, which means he knew about the Campbell harassment issue all along and did nothing.
And had Phil’s report not come out, Campbell would likely still be in his seat, and still be vice chair of the Republican caucus.
Between questions concerning his his residency, his inflated self-approved per diem which some want criminally investigated, and now the deception swirling around these very serious sexual harassment allegations, the already loud calls for Sexton’s resignation are sure to grow even louder now.