Subjected to a $150, two-hour class with no coffee that wasn’t very informative caused the majority of the state’s lobbyists to badmouth the Tennessee Ethics Commission for its first round of ethics training courses.
As part of new state ethics laws, registered lobbyists were required to attend a $150 ethics training class, given by the recently created Tennessee Ethics Commission.
But the majority of lobbyists who filled out evaluations post-ethics training didn’t give the state’s ethics commission high marks for its training, according to a City Paper review of the records.
Many of the lobbyists said the $150 fee for the course was “absurd” and registered numerous other complaints from questioning the effectiveness of the class to griping about not serving coffee or water.
A lobbyist who classified himself as “very ignorant” about the new ethics laws even after the class said he “expected much better” for $150.
“All the training session was an effort to cost us additional money,” the lobbyist wrote in the anonymous evaluations. “I hope everyone at the commission (employees) gets a raise.”
“If all lobbyists attend the training, you will take in $80,100,” another lobbyist wrote. “You are becoming a profit center.”
So far, there have been three ethics training courses. Another will be offered in September and a final one in December, said Bruce Androphy, the executive director of the Tennessee Ethics Commission.
The three classes so far have taken in about $52,000.
Lower fee possible
Androphy could not say how much the course cost to administer, only that the fees taken in have covered the expenses. The six-member ethics commission set the $150 fee.
“I want the commission to reconsider that again,” Androphy said, saying there is “potential” to have a lower fee. “I know that was some of the gripe.”
During fiscal year ’07, the ethics commission had an $183,000 surplus garnered from lobbyists’ fees.
Other lobbyists thought the $150 should have made the training a bit more hospitable.
“It would be nice to have water/coffee available,” a lobbyist wrote. “It seems the $150 fee should provide for more than a notebook.”
Androphy said the downtown Nashville Public Library — where the training was held - didn’t allow water or coffee to be served.
‘Bias’ brought up
Some lobbyists also alleged that Androphy and the ethics commission’s staff had a perceived “bias” against lobbyists. The Ethics Commission has oversight of the lobbying industry.
A lobbyist wrote that Androphy “may want to consider his aside comments,” in which, according to the unnamed lobbyist, he called West Tennessee or Memphis an “unethical government” and referred to specific companies.
“It shows a bias toward the industry that sounds like he has a prejudice that certain areas or companies are somehow unethical,” the lobbyist wrote. “This is troubling from someone who purports to be a neutral party.”
Another lobbyist said the ethics trainers addressed the lobbyists “as though we had already violated the law.” That irked the lobbyist since they pay the state’s professional privilege tax, which the lobbyist said meant they are viewed as pros by the state.
“We should be treated and spoken to as such,” the lobbyist wrote. “No registered lobbyists have been involved in the prior allegations. Hopefully, as time passes, this bias will lessen.”
Waltzing toward ethics
In the FBI’s 2005 Tennessee Waltz sting, undercover FBI agents posed as lobbyists in attempts to bribe lawmakers to influence legislation. All five of the former lawmakers charged have either been convicted or pleaded guilty.
The new ethics laws sprung from legislation in the wake of the Waltz sting.
Androphy defended himself and his staff against the allegations of bias against lobbyists, saying the ethics commission didn’t use an “accusatory tone.”
A New York native, Androphy said one thing he has learned in Tennessee is that Memphis does have a “climate that has fostered some of the problems that have appeared in the past.”
“It’s just for an example only,” Androphy said. “It’s not to castigate anybody.”
In addition, lobbyists lodged complaints about the effectiveness of the ethics training and suggested that the course be provided online so out of state lobbyists or those far outside Middle Tennessee would not have to drive or fly to Nashville.
One lobbyist, who was six-months pregnant, had to fly from California to attend the training and she does not plan to lobby the Legislature next year. It’s not clear if that’s because of the training requirement.
Courtney Pearre, the chairman of the Tennessee Lobbyist Association, said the members of the organization complained mostly about the cost and that the training in general was a “waste of time.”
Might be the material
Pearre doesn’t see the Legislature changing the requirement that lobbyists receive annual ethics training.
“In defense of the staff, I don’t know if Jay Leno or David Letterman could make it interesting,” Pearre said of the course.
Androphy said the ethics commission would try to improve the course and allow people to attend training classes later this year via conference call.
“While some of the answers are hostile, they have to remember that the requirement that they do go to annual training was set by the Legislature,” Androphy said. “I can’t waive that. All we can do is work on the manner that we deliver it.”
Overall, when responding to the question “how knowledgeable / ignorant do you feel after the training?” 17 lobbyists said they were “very knowledgeable,” 54 said somewhat knowledgeable, eight said “somewhat ignorant” and three said “very ignorant.”
A few didn’t check a box, but adlibbed that they were “confused,” “less knowledgeable” and had no change in their knowledge because the course didn’t offer anything of “significance.”
Many of the lobbyists did say that the ethics commission’s staff and its Web site had been helpful.