tennessee lookout

Virtual reception, real Jack Daniel’s for lawmakers

A Jack Daniel’s pickup truck is parked in spot reserved for the House speaker’s office outside the Cordell Hull Building in Nashville on Feb. 24, 2021. (Sam Stockard, Tennessee Lookout)

Jack Daniel’s representatives were at the state Capitol complex today, handing out free bottles of Tennessee whiskey and gift bags to lawmakers in advance of a “virtual reception,” the Tennessee Lookout’s Sam Stockard reports.

In-person legislative receptions are on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so the Lynchburg distiller has invited lawmakers to join a viewing of a Jack Daniel’s documentary from their homes or offices.

“Please mark your calendars for this exclusive opportunity as we toast and honor the Tennessee Legislature,” the invitation says.

Most gifts to lawmakers are banned under ethics rules, though lobbyists and their employers can offer free food and drink as long as each legislator is invited. But those events are generally held off-site when alcohol is involved.

According to the Ethics and Campaign Finance Bureau, Brown-Forman properly applied to hold the virtual reception, although the expense per person is pending. Jack Daniel’s corporate parent Brown-Forman did ask permission from the Ethics Commission, but didn’t run the idea past Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge). A spokesman for House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) said he was aware the liquor had been offered to all members.

Longtime Capitol watchers said the whiskey handout reminded them of the time when a liquor lobbyist would cover the the cost of any liquor picked up by legislators at the old Hermitage package store or when a beer lobbyist would place free suds in the car of any member who left their trunk lid open.

State Democrats vote to keep DNC member Bill Owen despite heavy GOP donations

The state Democratic Party has turned back efforts to remove former state Sen. Bill Owen (D-Knoxville) as a member of the Democratic National Committee because of heavy donations to Republicans in recent years.

According to one of the first reports by the newly launched Tennessee Lookout, Owen survived the challenge after a three-hour meeting of the state executive committee, with the panel voting 40-15 against throwing him out.

According to OpenSecrets.org data, Owen has given nearly $32,000 in federal contributions to Republican candidates and committees since 2018, including to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz when he was running against Democrat Beto O’Rourke in Texas and to Martha McSally in her losing Senate bid in Arizona against Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. Owen has given $13,900 in federal contributions to Democratic candidates and committees over that same period.

Owen argued the GOP donations are the cost of doing business as a lobbyist and said he had given about $500,000 to Democrats over the years. The OpenSecrets records show Owen has given about $99,000 to Democrats on the federal level since 1994 and $39,000 to Republicans. State-level donations are not included in that tally.

The decision to keep Owen in the Democratic fold follows a recent vote to oust longtime state Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis) from the primary ballot because of his habit of siding with Republicans on issues like abortion and school vouchers.

UPDATE: Here is a comment from Owen:

My contributions were for the purchase of tickets to the Senators Classic, a Republican fundraiser. I did so solely in the course of representing my client, KLOX Technologies. They manufacture a light therapy product that helps heal chronic wounds for people with diabetes. KLOX had applied for device designation in 2013, but by 2018 they had not received approval. I was contracted in May of 2018 to help move the decision through the FDA’s Office of Combination Products (OCP). Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) sponsored the Obama requested 21st Century Cures Act with the goal of bringing needed products to market more quickly. After I worked on the problem for 14 months, the OCP recommended approval and the product is now in clinical trials. Sen. Burr is also Co-Chair of The Senators Classic. Although I am pleased that the KLOX Light Therapy product should soon be available in America, I realize that my successful lobbying effort has created an appearance of a conflict. Therefore, I have terminated my Washington lobbying practice. It was not my intention to contribute to individual Republican Senators. The staff of the Senators Classic distributed the funds to the individual Senators.

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