Monthly Archives: January 2021

Upstairs, Downstairs: A guide to new House office assignments

Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) sits at her desk moved into a hallway in the Cordell Hull Building in Nashville on Jan 28, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) has issued new office assignments to 37 of the chamber’s 99 members. We’ve pieced together who went where by comparing this year’s directory with the last.

The House occupies three floors in the Cordell Hull Building, with the sixth floor being considered prime real estate because that’s where the speaker’s suite is located.

Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) received media attention this week when it turned out the outspoken lawmaker had been assigned a small converted conference room, while her assistant was placed in a former closet across the hall. Johnson moved her desk out into the hallway in protest.

New lawmakers in italics, former ones in parentheses:

RepresentativePartyPreviousNewLast tennant
Alexander, RebeccaR516Hazlewood, Patsy
Campbell, ScottyR582Hall, Mark
Carr, DaleR568560Williams, Ryan
Carringer, MicheleR510Cepicky, Scott
Cepicky, ScottR510678Travis, Ron
Darby, TandyR676Marsh, Pat
Dixie, VincentD550662Stewart, Mike
Doggett, ClayR580672Sexton, Jerry
Garrett, JohnnyR508636Johnson, Curtis
Gillespie, JohnR590(DeBerry, John)
Grills, RustyR400650Moody, Debra
Halford, CurtisR426526(Daniel, Martin)
Hall, MarkR582550Dixie, Vincent
Harris, TorreyD420Thompson, D.
Hawk, DavidR406648Vaughan, Kevin
Hazlewood, PatsyR516622Lynn, Susan
Hicks, GaryR640642(Holt, Andy)
Hicks, TimR518(Tillis, Rick)
Hodges, JasonD414508Garrett, Johnny
Holsclaw, John R534652(Coley, Jim)
Johnson, CurtisR636612(Dunn, Bill)
Johnson, GloriaD442427[new office]
Lynn, SusanR622426Halford, Curtis
Mannis, EddieR568Carr, Dale
Marsh, PatR676610(Hill, Matthew)
McKenzie, SamD512(Staples, Rick)
Miller, Larry J.D432580Doggett, Clay
Mitchell, BoD440400Grills, Rusty
Moody, DebraR650680(Hill, Timothy)
Parkinson, AntonioD422419(new office)
Sexton, JerryR672430(Van Huss, Micah)
Stewart, MikeD662422Parkinson, Antonio
Thompson, DwayneD420406Hawk, David
Travis, RonR678534Holsclaw, John
Vaughan, KevinR648519[new office]
Warner, ToddR414Garrett, Johnny
Williams, RyanR560640Hicks, Gary

Hagerty’s staff to be led by former Corker, Haslam aide Rader

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bill Hagerty speaks at Nashville event on Dec. 3, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Nashville) has named John Rader, an onetime aide to former Sen. Bob Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam, as his chief of staff. Rader also worked for Hagerty on former President Donald Trump’s transition team in 2016.

Hagerty’s state staff, led by former Haslam chief of staff Jim Henry, was announced previously.

Here’s the full release from Hagerty’s office.

WASHINGTON – United States Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN) today announced the appointment of a team of experienced professionals to his staff. In addition to the State office appointments announced earlier, Hagerty has appointed Cookeville, Tennessee native, John Rader, as his Chief of Staff, as well as other exceptionally qualified men and women who will make up his administration, communications, and policy teams in Washington, D.C.

“Not only does the team I have assembled in my Washington office augment the strong on-the-ground state organization announced this month, they also bring a wide array of experiences and qualifications that will serve our state and the country well,” said Senator Hagerty. “Under John Rader’s leadership, and with the senior team I have assembled, I am confident this talented group will work above and beyond to serve the needs of Tennesseans and our Nation.”

Administrative

John N. Rader will serve as Chief of Staff. Rader, who brings legislative and executive branch experience, at the federal and state level, most recently served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Initiatives at the White House. Rader also served on the National Security Council as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Policy Advisor to the National Security Advisor and Deputy Assistant to the President for Policy and Strategy. Prior to his time in the administration, Rader served as Deputy Director of Presidential Appointments on the 2016 Presidential Transition Team. Rader previously served as counsel on the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and as Acting Deputy Counsel and Assistant Deputy Counsel to the Governor of the State of Tennessee. He received his B.A. from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and his J.D. from the University of Tennessee College of Law. Rader is a native of Cookeville, Tennessee.

Clark Milner will serve as Chief Counsel to Hagerty. Milner was previously Deputy Counsel to Governor Bill Lee, a role in which he advised the governor and governor’s staff regarding legal, legislative, ethical, and other matters, assisted in the development, drafting, and implementation of legislation, and helped coordinate the legal affairs of the executive branch of state government. He previously served as Associate Deputy Counsel to Governor Bill Haslam, was an associate with Bass, Berry, and Sims PLC in Nashville, and was a law clerk to Judge Thomas A. Varlan of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee. Milner received his law degree from the University of Tennessee and his undergraduate degree from the University of Georgia. He is from Knoxville, Tennessee.

Jim Durrett will serve as Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations. Durrett previously served as Deputy Chief of Staff to U.S. Senator Todd Young (R-IN). He has served in senior staff roles for U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), and U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). He is a graduate of Austin Peay State University. Durrett is from Clarksville, Tennessee.

Betsy Van Dam will serve as Executive Assistant and Scheduler. Van Dam has supported Hagerty for the past ten years in the private sector as well as his stateside commitments during Hagerty’s tenure as the U.S. Ambassador to Japan. She served with the Presidential Appointments group on the 2016 Presidential Transition Team and as Hagerty’s Executive Assistant in the Department of Economic and Community Development for the State of Tennessee. She is from Franklin, Tennessee. 

Addison Osborne will serve as Assistant Scheduler. Osborne previously held internships in the White House Office of Political Affairs, at the Republican National Convention, and with U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) Office. She is a recent graduate of Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. 

Legend Brumbaugh will serve as Staff Assistant and Personal Aide to the Senator. Previously, Brumbaugh worked as a Regional Field Representative for Hagerty’s Senate campaign in Knoxville. He is a recent graduate of the University of Colorado, where he played football. Brumbaugh is from Knoxville, Tennessee.

Communications

Judd Deere will serve as Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications. Deere, who will also serve as the Senator’s spokesperson, most recently served in the White House as Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Press Secretary. He also spent time as Special Assistant to the President and Director of Media Affairs and before that as Director of State Communications. Prior to joining the administration, Deere was Director of Communications for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and served as Deputy Campaign Manager and Director of Communications for the Tim Griffin for Arkansas campaign. Deere brings prior U.S. Senate experience from his time as Press Secretary and Digital Director for U.S. Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Correspondence Director for U.S. Senator John Boozman (R-AR). Before his first stint on Capitol Hill, Deere was a Field Director for the Republican Party of Arkansas during the 2010 campaign in the State’s third congressional district. Deere holds a B.A. in Political Science from Lyon College, and is a native of Benton, Arkansas.

Julia Hahn will serve as Senior Communications Advisor. Hahn most recently served as Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy White House Communications Director. She also served as Special Assistant to the President and Director of Rapid Response and Surrogate Operations. Previously, Hahn worked in media as the Executive Producer of the Laura Ingraham Show and a reporter at Breitbart News. She previously worked on Capitol Hill as Press Secretary to former Congressman Dave Brat (VA-07). Hahn graduated from the University of Chicago with a B.A. in Philosophy.

Bailee Beshires will serve as Press Assistant. Beshires joins Hagerty’s office having previously served as Press Assistant for former U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN). She is a graduate of the University of Tennessee, where she also served as Communications Assistant at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy. She is from Henderson, Tennessee.

Audrey Traynor will serve as Digital Assistant. Traynor most recently served as Communications Assistant for former U.S. Senator David Perdue’s (R-GA) 2020 re-election campaign. Prior to joining the Perdue campaign, Traynor worked in communications for the Georgia Department of Labor. She is originally from Atlanta, and holds a B.A. in Advertising from the University of Georgia.

Policy

Adam Telle returns to the Senate to serve as Hagerty’s Chief Advisor. Most recently, Telle led the White House Office of Legislative Affairs’ Senate team, where he also managed all national security and appropriations matters. Previously, Telle was the chief staff member on the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security Subcommittee, serving under the chairmanship of U.S. Senators Thad Cochran (R-MS), Richard Shelby (R-AL), John Boozman (R-AR), and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). He also spent 10 years in the Office of Senator Cochran, where he served as Deputy Chief of Staff, Legislative Director, and the top national security staffer. Telle began his Senate career in the Office of Senator Shelby. He is a native of Northport, Alabama and holds degrees in computer science and communication from Mississippi State University, where he was elected student body president. Telle spent childhood summers in Sevier County, Tennessee, where his parents were married, and Telle himself was married in Nashville on the campus of Vanderbilt University, his wife’s alma mater.

Jonathan S. Greenstein will serve as Senior Policy Advisor. He previously was a Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Treasury. In the private sector, he worked in Goldman Sachs’ Investment Banking Division covering financial institutions. He holds a J.D. from Yale, and a B.A. and MBA from Harvard.

Robert Zarate will serve as National Security Advisor. Zarate most recently served on the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State. He previously served as Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and advanced the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (Public Law 116-76), Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act (Public Law 116-145), Hizballah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act (Public Law 115–272), and the Senate-passed Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act (S. 1, 116th Congress). He earlier served as National Security Advisor to former U.S. Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) and as Legislative Assistant to U.S. Representative Jeff Fortenberry (NE-01). Zarate earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago.

Colonel (Retired) Joel D. Rayburn will serve as Special Advisor for Middle East Affairs. Rayburn has almost three decades of experience as a diplomat and military officer. Most recently, he has served two-and-half years as the U.S. Special Envoy for Syria in the U.S. Department of State. Previously, he was Senior Director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon on the National Security Council. Along with numerous deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Balkans, Rayburn taught history at West Point and became a published scholar of the Middle East. His 26-year Army career culminated in his 2013-2016 directorship of the Army’s Iraq War Study Group and the publication of a two-volume history, “The U.S. Army in the Iraq War” (2018). Rayburn also authored a book on Iraqi politics, “Iraq After America” (2013) and numerous articles on Middle Eastern affairs. He holds master’s degrees from Texas A&M University and the National War College.

Natalie McIntyre will serve as Deputy Legislative Director. McIntyre was formerly Deputy to the Associate Director for Legislative Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) where she handled the Senate portfolio and was the primary contact to Senate offices and OMB components. Before that, she was a Senior Policy Advisor and White House Liaison at the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Prior to her time in the administration, McIntyre was a Legislative Assistant for U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and handled the healthcare, transportation, and the budget portfolios. Natalie holds a M.P.P from the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University and a B.S in Financial Economics from Centre College.  

Andrew H. Hogin will serve as Deputy Chief of Staff for State Relations. He will focus on Tennessee-specific projects in Washington D.C. Previously, Hogin served as Deputy Chief of Staff to U.S. Representative David Kustoff (TN-08). He also served as Legislative Liaison for Hagerty during his tenure as Commissioner of Economic and Community Development for the State of Tennessee and prior to that as an Aide to Governor Bill Haslam. Hogin is a native of Nashville, Tennessee, and holds a B.S. in Political Science from the University of Tennessee. 

Lucas Da Pieve will serve as Projects Director. Da Pieve most recently served as the Deputy Legislative Director and Projects Manager, supervising all appropriations requests for former U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN). Previously he was the Director of Digital Response in the Office of Presidential Correspondence at the White House. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and has worked in government and politics since 2013. Da Pieve is originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina. His family has lived in Blount County since 2008.

Kevin Kim will serve as the National Security Fellow. Kim previously served as the Senior Advisor to Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control, where he participated in multiple rounds of United States-Russia arms control negotiations. He was also the Chief of Staff to Special Representative for North Korea. Kim was previously an analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the Department of State, focusing on East Asia, non-proliferation, and Western Europe. Prior to joining the Department of State, Kim worked at the World Bank Group and the U.S. Korea Institute at SAIS Kim. He holds a B.A. from the Johns Hopkins University, an M.A. from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Catholic University of America.  

Shane Harris will serve as Special Projects Coordinator. Prior to joining Hagerty’s team, Harris was Associate Director for the White House Office of the Staff Secretary. He also previously served in the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence. Harris holds a B.A. in Political Science from Wittenberg University.

Riley Stamper will serve as a Legislative Correspondent and Personal Aide to Hagerty. Stamper most recently served as Personal Aide to Hagerty during his 2020 campaign. Previously, he served in former U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander’s (R-TN) Office. He is a graduate of Wofford College. Stamper is a ninth-generation Tennessean, originally from Knoxville, Tennessee.

Nick Elliot will serve as a Legislative Correspondent. Previously, he served as Deputy Field Director for Hagerty’s campaign. Elliot is a graduate of Georgetown University. He is from Nashville, Tennessee.

Rachel Leong will serve as a Legislative Correspondent. Leong previously worked in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, first as a Staff Assistant on the Senate team and later Special Assistant to the Director of Legislative Affairs. Leong holds a B.A. from Texas A&M University, and is currently pursuing her M.S. in International Business at George Washington University. 

Shea Throckmorton will serve as a Legislative Correspondent. Previously, he served as West Tennessee Field Representative for Hagerty’s campaign. Throckmorton is a graduate of the University of Mississippi. He is from Memphis, Tennessee. 

Tennessee Dems send Medicaid block grant objections to Biden

House members attend a floor session in Nashville on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

State House and Senate Democrats are asking President Joe Biden to halt a Medicaid block grant for Tennessee.

Former President Donald Trump’s administration approved the block grant shortly before he left office. Republican state lawmakers rushed to OK the waiver before Trump left office last week.

Here is the full letter:

Dear President Biden,

We, the House and Senate Democrats of the Tennessee State Legislature, are writing you to request that you rescind the Medicaid block grant waiver that the Trump Administration granted, and our Republican colleagues in the General Assembly hastily voted to approve.

This waiver gives Tennessee more control over spending Medicaid dollars, in exchange for a cap on those funds. There’s a number of significant problems with this approach.

First and foremost, the state has proven themselves unable to handle the responsibility of being given more control over federal dollars. In addition to refusing to expand Medicaid for nearly a decade, our state government allowed a $732 million surplus of TANF funds to accumulate, rather than spend that money on what it was intended for – helping families in need.

The waiver allows for reducing the population of the 1.4 million Tennesseans eligible for Medicaid if there are problems re-registering beneficiaries. It also hands near-total oversight of the funds over to TennCare (Tennessee’s Medicaid program), which has a history of disfunction and unnecessary barriers to enrollment.

Since the outgoing administration first introduced the block grant proposal in 2017, Tennessee has been the only state to take up the offer. Even the most conservative legislatures across the country knew this was a bad deal. The New York Times referred to Tennessee’s undertaking of the block grant as a “structural experiment,” and the test subjects are working Tennesseans, families, and seniors.

The state GOP, which pushed the approval of the block grant through at the Eleventh Hour prior to Inauguration Day, refused to work with Democrats to ensure the proposal would be fair, legal, and appreciated by all Tennesseans. If they did, we would have pointed out the issues we saw with the deal, including the fact that it might not even be legally sound. Had they consulted with us, we could have come to a solution that better served people of Tennessee.

We know that they don’t want this program for the purpose of serving Tennesseans: they want this program for future political campaign purposes. Millions of Tennesseans will remain uninsured, this program will end up costing our taxpayers hefty legal fees, and the end result will likely be that a court will overturn it – unless your incoming administration can stop this waiver before it starts.

Thank you for your consideration.

Lawmaker searched by FBI misses campaign finance deadline

Rep. Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill) is sworn into the House in Nashville on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Freshman Rep. Todd Warner of Chapel Hill, one of three Republican House members to have their homes and offices searched by the FBI earlier this month, did not file a fourth-quarter campaign finance report by Monday’s deadline.

The other subjects of the searches, Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin and Robin Smith of Hixson, filed their personal campaign and PAC disclosures on time.

Warner in an email to the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance said he was unable to complete his disclosure due to the raids.

“The FBI confiscated all files and documents related to my campaign including check copies from donations and checking account ledgers,” Warner said in the email obtained by The Tennessee Journal. “They also took all computers and back ups for the campaign and my business.”

Warner defeated Rep. Rick Tillis of Lewisburg in the Republican primary in August. The Tillis camp filed a complaint alleging coordination between Warner and an independent expenditure group calling itself Faith Freedom Family Fund because they used the same postal code. The account out of Chattanooga also sent mail for a new vendor called Phoenix Solutions, which ended up getting more than $200,000 worth of business from House Republicans last cycle.

Several House members have said Smith was a major proponent of first using Phoenix Solutions. She has declined to answer reporters’ questions about whether she has any financial ties to the outfit.

Casada PAC attacks from 2018 appear to be templates for hit pieces on Tillis

A political action committee that ran attacks last summer against former Rep. Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg) used the same template as hit pieces issued by the PAC of former House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) two years earlier.

The mailers attacking Tillis were run by a group called the Faith Freedom Family Fund, or FFFF. The ones targeting Jonathan Mason, a Republican candidate running for a Hamilton County House seat in 2018, were sent out by Red Ivory Strategies for Casada’s CAS-PAC. Red Ivory is owned by Michael Lotfi, whom Casada later hired for a no-show job at the General Assembly.

“Lying Rick Tillis will say & do anything to get elected … Don’t let him fool you!” reads an FFFF mailer.

“Lying Jonathan Mason will say & do anything to get elected … Don’t let him fool you!” says a CAS-PAC mailer.

Red Ivory received at least $135,000 from House Republicans in 2020, including $57,750 from the GOP caucus (which isn’t supposed to work against its own members).

The Tennessean has reported that former Casada aide Cade Cothren, who helped run CAS-PAC, also assigned work on behalf of FFFF.

Casada’s preferred candidate in the 2018 primary was Esther Helton of East Ridge, who went on to win the primary and the general election. A mailer from that race carried a Chattanooga postal permit number, 383, that has featured heavily in the Tillis primary.

Permit No. 383 was used in August by Tillis’ opponent Todd Warner, the FFFF PAC, and a campaign vendor called Phoenix Solutions, which has run mailers for a variety of GOP candidates. Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixson) was a major promoter of Phoenix.

Smith, Casada, and Warner had their homes and offices searched by the FBI earlier this month, which agents also went through Cothren’s apartment.

Phoenix calling: Mystery vendor received more than $200K in 2020 (UPDATED)

Reps. Robin Smith (R-Hixson), left, and Mark Cochran (R-Englewood) are sworn into the 112th General Assembly on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A mystery campaign vendor believed to be at the center of an FBI investigation into three sitting House members and a former chief of staff was the beneficiary of more than $200,000 in Republican spending.

As of Monday evening, Phoenix Solutions was reported to have received $82,450 during the fourth quarter to bring its total haul for the year to $200,850. About $72,000 of that has come from Rep. Robin Smith, a Hixson Republican who was among the lawmakers who had their homes and offices searched, and her Leadership Pioneers PAC.

Smith and the PAC spent $14,500 on the company in the quarter, with the money going toward get-out-the-vote efforts, a digital fundraising campaign, and independent expenditures in support for Reps. Mark White of Memphis, John Gillespie of Germantown, and Mike Sparks of Smyrna.

Also reporting spending on Phoenix in the quarter were Republican Reps. Esther Helton of Signal Mountain ($10,700 for advertising), Charlie Baum of Murfreesboro ($7,300 for advertising) and Patsy Hazlewood of Signal Mountain ($5,600 for consulting fees). The state Republican Party spent another $44,500 on Phoenix’s services, including on Gillespie and unsuccessful House candidates John Dawson of Clarksville and Patti Possell of Cordova.

The subjects of the FBI searches were Reps. Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill) and Glen Casada (R-Franklin), along with Cade Cothren, who was Casada’s top aide when he was speaker.

“I am fully cooperating. I plan to be doing that,” Smith told reporters after the FBI raids. Her attorney said in a statement that Smith was not a “target” of the investigation.

Pressed by the Chattanooga Times Free Press’ Andy Sher about whether she had any connection to Phoenix, Smith replied: “All I will tell you is we’ve issued a statement. I’m fully cooperating. I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize what’s going forward. And I look forward to being able to issue another statement in the future.”

Phoenix has become a new player since Smith’s election to the General Assembly, with several lawmakers saying she was a major advocate for using the New Mexico-based outfit.

Before Monday’s disclosures, Phoenix had received $118,400 in 2020, including $22,800 from Kent Calfee of Kingston, $21,900 from Paul Sherrell of Sparta, $6,200 from Dan Howell of Cleveland, $4,400 from Jason Zachary of Knoxville (who misspelled the name of the company as “Phenoix” in his disclosure), $1,900 from Baum, $1,700 from Hazlewood, and $1,700 from Mark Hall of Cleveland.

Former Sen. Jim Tracy joins Commerce Department

Gov.-elect Bill Lee speaks to a Chamber of Commerce event in Memphis on Dec. 6, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Former state Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), who gave up his seat in 2017 when President Donald Trump appointed him as a state USDA director, is joining the state Department of Commerce and Insurance in Gov. Bill Lee’s administration.

Here are the personnel moves announced by the department on Friday:

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance (TDCI) announces senior leadership role additions and staffing updates from Commissioner Carter Lawrence.

“With these senior leadership staffing updates, our Department is well positioned to continue our best-in-class service for Tennesseans and to further our mission of protecting Tennesseans through balanced oversight of insurance while fostering fair marketplaces and consumer education that promote the success of individuals and businesses while serving as innovative leaders,” said TDCI Commissioner Carter Lawrence. “I welcome these staff promotions and additions and thank them for their service to our great state.”

TDCI Staffing Updates:

Jennifer Peck assumes the role of Chief of Staff and Chief Operating Officer, while continuing in her role as Deputy Commissioner – overseeing Fire Prevention/State Fire Marshal’s Office, the Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy (TLETA)/Peace Officer Standards Training (POST) Commission and the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board (TECB). Previously, Peck served as an Executive Director in the Division of Regulatory Boards. Prior to joining the Department, she was the owner of Peck Legal Group, PLLC, which specialized in domestic relations litigation and mediation. She is a graduate of Auburn University and the Regent University School of Law.

Toby Compton is promoted to Deputy Commissioner – overseeing Insurance, Regulatory Boards, Securities and TennCare Oversight. Previously, Compton served as Assistant Commissioner for the Division of Regulatory Boards for the Department. Prior to joining the Department, Compton was the President and CEO for Associated Builders and Contractors for Greater Tennessee, held leadership positions at the Metro Sports Authority in Nashville and worked at the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. He is a graduate of Lipscomb University and Cumberland University.

Bill Huddleston is promoted to Assistant Commissioner for Insurance. A TDCI team member since 2014, Huddleston previously served as the Director of Insurance where he oversaw the division’s administration which includes agent licensing, company examinations, company financial analysis and other duties. A certified public accountant, Huddleston also served as Receivership Director in the Insurance Division. In 2017, he was a recipient of a Governor’s Excellence in Service Award for his leadership in the Division of Regulatory Boards. Before joining TDCI, Huddleston served as a legislative auditor with the Office of the Comptroller. A Nashville native, Huddleston is a graduate of Lipscomb University as well as Harding University. He is married with three children.

Alex Martin joins the Department as Assistant Commissioner for the Division of Regulatory Boards. Previously, Martin served as Deputy Director of External Affairs and Director of Appointments for Governor Bill Lee. In his prior role, Martin worked with the Lee Administration to appoint many of the members of the Department’s boards and commissions within the Division of Regulatory Boards. An eighth generation Tennessean, Alex is a graduate of Tennessee Tech and served on the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

Jim Tracy joins TDCI as a Senior Advisor to the Department. Tracy most recently served as State Director for USDA Rural Development in Tennessee – working with rural communities to address local issues including facilities, broadband, water and sewer. In this role he facilitated federal grants and lower-interest loans for businesses and citizens. Tracy’s list of public service spans decades – having previously served as a State Senator, Bedford County Board of Education member, President of the Shelbyville-Bedford County Chamber of Commerce, founding member of the Bedford County Economic Development and Tourism committee and Chairman of the Tennessee Leadership Council of the National Federation of Independent Business. For more than 20 years, Tracy owned and operated his own insurance company where he sold all lines of insurance. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee at Martin with a degree in Agriculture Education. Jim and his wife, Trena, have been married for over 30 years and have three sons: Chad, Craig and Connor.

Patrick Merkel is promoted to Director of Insurance after having served as Chief Counsel for Insurance, Securities and TennCare Oversight since July 2019. Merkel is on his second term of service with the Department. He first joined the Department in 2007 and worked with the Division of Regulatory Boards and as Chief Counsel for Fire Prevention and Law Enforcement. Merkel previously worked in private practice representing clients before the Tennessee Motor Vehicle Commission, the Tennessee Office of the Attorney General and Reporter, state trial courts and the Tennessee Court of Appeals. Merkel is a graduate of Michigan State University and the University of Dayton School of Law. Patrick is married with a daughter and two step-sons.

COVID diagnosis in Senate raises concerns (UPDATED)

The Senate meets in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A state senator has tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the special session and other lawmakers and staffers may have been exposed, The Tennessee Journal has learned.

UPDATE: Sen. Ed Jackson (R-Jackson) has confirmed he has tested positive:

“I was informed yesterday afternoon that I have tested positive for COVID-19.  I am quarantining at home with mild symptoms,” Jackson said in a statement. “I have received excellent care and am thankful for all of our health professionals who are on the front lines in fighting this virus.”

One further senator is believed to be in quarantine, while another is remaining on duty because he already had COVID-19. The office of legislative adminstration declined to confirm or deny any infections due to privacy concerns.

The incident comes despite enhanced measures the Senate has taken to try to fight the spread of COVID-19. The upper chamber has required social distancing between members in committees and on the floor while banning the public from its meetings. But nothing prevents lawmakers from congregating in their offices, elevators, or hallways of the Capitol complex.

At least nine House members have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

New charges filed against Democratic Sen. Robinson

The Tennessee Senate meets on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

New charges have been filed against state Sen. Katrina Robinson. The Memphis Democrat was previously indicted on 48 federal fraud counts in July 2020 — 24 each of wire fraud and theft and embezzlement from the government. Robinson has denied wrongdoing.

Here’s the U.S. Justice Department release outlining the latest developments:

MEMPHIS, TN – Tennessee State Senator Katrina Robinson, 40, has been federally charged in a new case, along with two other co-defendants, with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering. D. Michael Dunavant, U.S. Attorney announced the unsealing of the new federal criminal complaint today.

According to information presented in Court, the Healthcare Institute (“THI”) is a post-secondary educational provider located in Memphis, Tennessee. It purports to provide training programs for jobs in the healthcare field, including certified nursing assistant, phlebotomist, and licensed practical nurse. It was founded in January 2015 as a Tennessee for-profit LLC, with Katrina Robinson as director. THI received more than $10,000 in federal funds each year between 2015 and 2019. During that period, Robinson is alleged to have stolen, converted, and intentionally misapplied property of THI for her own use. As a result, on July 30, 2020, she was indicted in Case No. 2:20-cr-20147-SHL, which is currently pending trial in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. https://www.justice.gov/usao-wdtn/pr/federal-grand-jury-returns-indictment-charging-tennessee-state-senator-katrina-robinson

The charges in this new federal complaint arise from a completely separate fraud scheme in which Robinson, Katie Ayers, 59, and Brooke Boudreaux, 32, are alleged to have conspired to use THI to defraud victim R.S. out of $14,470.00, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1349 and 18 U.S.C. § 1956(h).

As set forth in more detail in the complaint affidavit, while investigating the charges in the 2020 case, the FBI also uncovered a scheme in which the defendants convinced R.S. that Boudreaux, with whom he had an existing relationship, needed the money for tuition and expenses to attend THI. R.S. agreed and tendered $14,470.00 to THI for that purpose. In fact, the investigation revealed that Boudreaux was never a student at THI, and the conspirators split the money among themselves for their personal benefit and unjust enrichment.

If convicted, the defendants each face a possible sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison followed by three years supervised release. There is no parole in the federal system. The case will be presented to a federal grand jury at a later date to consider an indictment against the defendants.

This case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

The charges and allegations contained in the complaint are merely accusations of criminal conduct, not evidence. The defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and convicted through due process of law.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris E. Cotten is prosecuting this case on behalf of the government.

Here is Gov. Bill Lee’s special session address to lawmakers

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters following his address to a joint convention of the General Assembly on Jan. 19, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Here is the full text of Gov. Bill Lee’s speech to lawmakers Tuesday, as prepared for delivery:

Thank you Lt. Governor McNally and Speaker Sexton, Speaker Pro-Tem Haile and Speaker Pro-Tem Marsh for the opportunity to convene on behalf of our students. 

I also thank Leader Johnson, Leader Lamberth, members of the education committee who have worked closely with us, and I want to thank all the members of the General Assembly. 

We have a shared belief that the foundation of our state is the strength of her people. 

As we approach the one year mark of managing the COVID-19 pandemic in Tennessee and facing the number of other challenges in this state and on the federal level, it’s a common refrain to hear “this is a historic time”, or an “unprecedented time” or “never before have seen a challenge of this magnitude.” 

In many ways, that’s certainly true, and I’ve found there has been no greater place for COVID to cause sweeping disruption than in our K-12 school system.

This disruption has left students to navigate unprecedented challenges without the routine of learning in a classroom, with classmates and a trusted teacher. 

We’re meeting today because it’s time to intervene for our kids who are staring down record learning losses, that in the short-term, mean an inability to read at their grade level or understand basic math. 

But in the long-term, those learning losses mean higher incarceration rates and poverty as adults. 

Our work here this week bears great significance on the safety of our neighborhoods and the prosperity of our state for a generation. 

Big challenges require decisive action, which is why we have agreed to meet this week in an extraordinary legislative session. 

We cannot wait, because our students cannot wait. 

It would be much simpler to hope or to assume that disruptions to school caused by COVID will just come out in the wash. 

But unfortunately, the data – the science – tells us that isn’t true. 

Data suggests there are very real consequences to keeping students out of the classroom for this long. 

Nationally, that looks like a 50% drop in reading proficiency and a 65% drop in math proficiency with third grade students. 

That sort of forecast is forcing an unacceptable future on our kids and it’s why we are proposing a series of reforms around learning loss and literacy. We are also proposing a pause around some aspects of accountability. 

These data points are important, and indeed we have used data to make all decisions impacting our schools. 

Months ago, when critics were loud and the scare tactics were louder with all the reasons why we couldn’t safely return students and teachers to the classroom, we traded that speculation for science. 

We followed that science down a path that would make us one of the first states in the country to get students and teachers back in the classroom this fall across 145 of our 147 districts. 

Tennessee has thus become a national leader in embracing the courage to get back in the classroom and show that it can be done. 

I commend those districts, those local leaders and educators for not settling for the path of least resistance and hiding behind month after month of virtual learning with no end in sight. 

Instead, we saw the vast majority of our schools, led by determined superintendents put in the work that was needed for one reason: their students were counting on them. 

And kids have a lot to say about in-person learning or the lack thereof. 

In a survey of more than 20,000 school kids across nine states, only 39% of students in grades 5 through 12 reported that they ‘learned a lot almost every day’ during the shutdown.’[1] 

64% of students overall reported experiencing distractions at home that interfered with schoolwork.

And worse so, Black and Latino students reported facing more obstacles to learning at home than white and Asian students.

Here’s the bottom line: you can’t say “follow the science” and keep schools closed. 

You can’t say “I believe in public education” and keep schools closed. 

And you can’t say you’re putting the needs of students first and keep schools closed. 

Kids do better in school: we know that – parents know that. 

That’s why I’m so proud of our districts who have kids in school, and to those who remain closed, I would offer this simple encouragement: follow the science. 

Getting kids back in the classroom is imperative. But the reality is that the impacts from COVID would require us to act urgently even if every student was back to in-person learning tomorrow. 

First, let’s talk about learning loss. 

Paired with a full return to the classroom, we are proposing a targeted intervention to reach those kids who are falling behind in reading and math. 

Existing laws have created an environment of too little, too late when it comes to helping kids before third grade. 

We are proposing a third-grade reading gate which means that we make sure students are prepared before we pass them through to the fourth grade. 

When we stop the cycle of passing without preparation, we give kids a better chance at succeeding in middle school and beyond. 

Our proposal also includes a full-time tutoring corps, after school camps, learning loss bridge camps and summer learning camps. 

Upon passage of our proposed legislation, we will be prepared to execute and administer these targeted interventions beginning this summer. 

Now, let’s talk about literacy. 

So much of our success in K-12 hinges on building better readers. When only 34% of Tennessee students are proficient or advanced readers by fourth grade, and that’s pre-COVID, something isn’t working and it’s time to get back to the basics. 

We need to teach our kids to read with phonics. 

It’s the way we learned to read. It’s the way we taught our kids. 

With this proposal, kindergarteners through third grade will be taught phonics as the primary form of reading instruction. 

And to make sure our progress is on track, we’ve developed a screening tool to help parents and teachers identify a struggling student more quickly. 

Simple methods like phonics serve our kids better – Commissioner Schwinn knows it and I know it and that’s what we’re going to use in Tennessee. 

We believe that these tools will work for our students but we have to have a clear picture of their starting point to get a window into the progress that they’ll make. 

So we will keep TCAP testing in place for the 20/21 school year so that parents and teachers know where students stand. 

However, there will be no negative consequences associated with student assessments so that the focus can remain on getting firm footing back in place after the uncertainty of time away from the classroom. 

To be clear: no teacher will be penalized due to test results this school year. But we’ll be relying on teachers and districts like never before to help us get these kids back on track. 

This approach isn’t going to be easy but as leaders we must do what it takes for our kids. 

We’re pursuing both bold interventions and a return to the basics and for any of these goals to come to fruition, we have to account for our teachers. 

We are proposing additional funding through both an appropriations bill this week and our upcoming budget to give a pay raise to every single teacher in Tennessee.

We are proposing to increase the salary component of our funding formula by 4%. This is not just about compensation – it’s an investment in better outcomes for our kids and we should all place an expectation on school districts that these dollars get passed directly to our teachers.

In the last decade, our students have made great strides in both reading and math and yet the events of the last year stand to threaten that progress. 

We aren’t where we want to be as a state but we have a tremendous opportunity here and now to not only stave off a monumental crisis but to forge a new path. 

Our new approach isn’t just about making up the losses.

These changes to our education system will actually educate our kids better in the future than we did before the pandemic. 

And that is a redemption story for our education system that will have ripple effects on our students’ lives for decades and well beyond the classroom. 

Thank you for your time today and careful consideration to each of these proposals. We should not miss this opportunity and together we’ll change the future of Tennessee. Thank you.