Legislative staffers allowed to make sales on behalf of lawmaker - WSMV News 4

Legislative staffers allowed to make sales on behalf of lawmakers they work for

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There are unanswered questions about whether some state lawmakers made a personal profit because of emails sent by their own legislative staffers.

A spokesman for the House Republican Caucus said the elected officials did nothing wrong. But some lawmakers avoided pointed questions about whether they made money due to emails sent over a state email group.

The email group was specifically created so employees at the General Assembly could buy, sell and trade items. The offers range from Beyoncé tickets to power washers, even ranch salad dressing.

Through an open records request, the Channel 4 I-Team found instances when staffers tried buying or selling items not just for themselves, but also for the lawmakers they work for.

It’s a move this political science expert calls inappropriate.

“There’s plenty of places to wheel and deal without doing it on state resources with staff,” said Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University.

Think of it like a virtual bulletin board. State legislative employees can be added to an internal email group where they can email each other about things they’d like to buy or sell.

But even though there are no lawmakers in the group, the I-Team found staffers making offers on their behalf.

When Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon, wanted to sell two tickets for the Battle at Bristol football game, his assistant sent an email trying to sell them.

Stevens said he sold the two tickets together for $180, even though both tickets cost $130 each.

When Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, wanted to sell his antique John Deere tractor, his assistant sent an email about the item.

Roberts said he never did sell that tractor.

Some of the offers were more than just items. An email from the assistant for Rep. Paul Sherrell, R-Sparta, touted 62 acres in Sparta for $145,000.

Interested buyers were told to contact Rep. Sherrell.

The I-Team called, texted and emailed Sherrell to ask specific questions. When we received no response, we approached the lawmaker at the Capitol.

“Can I ask you a few questions really quickly?" said reporter Alanna Autler.

“I've got to go, I've got to go,” Sherrell said.

“It's about your property in White County,” Autler said before Sherrell walked away.

The Legislature’s email policy allows employees to make occasional sales over email. Lawmakers are also technically considered employees.

The rules prohibit “for-profit emails” that could result in repeat business.

In the last year alone, the I-Team found six instances of staffers doing just that involving side businesses likes Mary Kay, Essential Oils and Pampered Chef.

But we also had questions about repeat sales that could benefit lawmakers. An assistant for Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro, sent an email in 2015 detailing a children's book written by Powers and his wife.

The message included a link to where the book could be purchased.

When asked if the email resulted in book sales, Powers responded, “No comment.”

So does it make a difference if a sale went through?

In 2015, an assistant for Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, sent an email saying the lawmaker wanted to buy Fleetwood Mac tickets. But Parkinson said he never bought them.

Our records request even turned up an email from 2004, when former Rep. Russell Johnson tried selling two engagement rings.

His staffer at the time told the I-Team no one ever purchased the rings. Johnson, who now works as a district attorney in East Tennessee, did not return a request for comment.

But Syler said regardless of the outcome, lawmakers should avoid mixing personal and private business.

"Any time you take time away from these staffers for private things is not really good for taxpayers," Syler said.

The I-Team asked a House caucus spokesman specific questions about whether certain lawmakers had asked their staffers to send out emails on their behalf and whether they made a profit.

Instead, spokesman Doug Kufner sent this statement:

State employees using their free time to inform colleagues about one-time items for sale does not equate to a business operation. It is not different than employees at other businesses using an office bulletin board or online sites like eBay or Craigslist to share information about items that are for sale.

Connie Ridley, the director of the Office of Legislative Administration, declined an on-camera interview. But Ridley said she deals with violations of the email policy as soon as they occur. Ridley could not say how many violations she’s addressed because she said she does not keep track.

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