UPDATE April 29: Bruce Androphy has responded to our story with the following statement:
"The Commission does much more than handle complaints and process paperwork. The staff tries to assist those who are covered under the law with questions and to assist those who are required by law to file certain documents, and to bring to the Commission's attention those questions which involve policy decisions and those cases in which the required documents have not been filed.
The Commission's legal staff has issued more than 150 informal responses to legal questions since the legislation authorizing such responses was passed last year. In the current fiscal year, the Commission has issued over 100 enforcement orders for failure to file required documents on time, and for other violations of the law. The fact that there have been no probable cause findings is an indication that the Commission's training and education efforts have been successful, and should not detract from the other important work performed by the Commission."
As originally reported:
Testimony before the Tennessee State Senate's State and Local Government Committee took an unusual turn this morning, as a member of the Tennessee Ethics Commission basically provided the rebuttal for comments made by the commission's executive director.
Bruce Androphy, executive director of the commission, was providing testimony to the committee as they were deciding whether to renew the ethics commission's budget.
Typically, these types of hearings are a formality, giving legislators a chance to ask a few questions and rattle the cages of the people whose budgets they are approving. In the end, the committee approved Androphy's budget, but not before some damage was inflicted on him and his testimony turned into a bit of a train wreck.
When damage is inflicted at these tribunals, it is usually done by a member of the legislature. But, in the world of the ethics commission, nothing goes off in a usual manner. In this case, Androphy was blindsided by one of his own bosses, commission member Linda W. Knight.
During his testimony, Androphy said that in the two-plus years of existence of the commission, it had handled a total of 30 to 40 complaints. He stated that some were reviewed and dismissed, some were referred to the Tennessee Attorney General's office and others were handled by his staff.
What he failed to mention was clarified by Knight, who pointed out that since 2006 not one complaint has found to have had "probable cause" requiring action by the commission. Not necessarily information that Androphy wanted out there, who sank in his chair when the clarification was made.
It basically proved the point of Androphy's critics that an overwhelming majority of the work done by ethics commission staff is processing paperwork, not the Elliot Ness-type of investigating they are portrayed to be doing by other media outlets.
In addition to Knight's "clarification," Androphy did even more damage to himself when he took swing at legislation not related to the duties and functions of the commission. He commented that it was his "personal opinion" that legislation barring state employees from resigning and going to work for a state contractor the next day was something that needed to pass.
In the world of the legislature, that testimony – especially from someone who is a state employee – was a major faux pas. Androphy's comments were perceived by some legislators as an unauthorized power grab. Asked about the comments, commission member Nathaniel Goggans said Androphy "offered personal commentary not requested or directed by the commission."
While the ethics commission budget was approved, it does not mean that the entity will survive in its present form. Any belief that budget approval was tantamount to endorsement of the ethics commission in its current form is misguided.
State Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), chair of the State and Local Committee, has legislation before the General Assembly that would transfer the duties of the ethics commission to the Registry of Election Finance if the ethics commission automatically terminates and ceases to exist on June 30.
Asked about this morning's hearing, Ketron stated, "Today's testimony clearly defined the work of the ethics commission. All the while, they have been increasing staff – three more people in the last year – they have not had reason for probable cause to investigate ethics violations in their entire existence. For what reason do they have to continue to increase staff?"