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Finding a cure for the 'Cumberland Croup'

Robert Houk • Oct 29, 2017 at 12:00 AM

Federal lawmakers who become caught up in the glitz of insider politics in Washington, D.C., are often said to suffer from “Potomac Fever.” This affliction has led to the downfall of many ambitious politicians.

A similar disorder, the “Cumberland Croup,” has been known to afflict state legislators who drink too much of the water in Nashville. It’s a condition the FBI has diagnosed at least twice in the last two decades.

I was a reporter for this newspaper in Nashville in the late 1980s when operation “Rocky Top,” an investigation into bingo gambling, rocked both the legislative and executive branches of government. Nearly 20 years later, there was “Tennessee Waltz,” an undercover investigation that resulted in the indictments of five former or current lawmakers, as well as a lobbyist.

There’s no evidence today of widespread corruption among members of the state General Assembly. Unfortunately, the case of former state Rep. Jeremy Durham continues to provide drama. The (Nashville) Tennessean reported last week that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has interviewed two state lawmakers in connection with an ongoing criminal investigation involving Durham, who was kicked out of the General Assembly last year for allegedly lewd behavior.

Sources said the TBI agents seemed particularly keen on asking questions about bribery.

Back in 1989, the year the Rocky Top scandal broke, lawmakers routinely were wined and dined by lobbyists. In fact, lobbyists once held a weekly gathering at a Nashville nightspot where they picked up the tab for every willing lawmaker. These sessions were referred to as “Choir Practice.”

Obviously, lobbyists hoped the gesture would result in lawmakers singing from their hymnal when it came time to vote on key issues.

There are nearly three registered lobbyists on Capitol Hill for every member of the General Assembly (and there are 132 members serving in the Tennessee Legislature). Some of these are volunteers who lobby for nonprofit or public watchdog groups. Others work for public relations companies or law firms that represent a number of clients.

A bulk of the legislation introduced in the General Assembly annually is drafted by lobbyists. These bills are written to address specific issues of concern to a number of special interests, ranging from business groups to health care providers.

After Rocky Top, state lawmakers passed legislation to stiffen ethics regulations for both themselves and lobbyists. While the laws were hailed at the time as being some of the most sweeping ethical reforms in the nation, a number of loopholes have been discovered and exploited in recent years..

For the most part, lawmakers are traditionally opposed to restricting contributions from their special interest friends. Many legislators believe a full disclosure of contributions from lobbyists will address any ethical problems that might exist.

I agree. Full disclosure is a good idea, but it doesn’t solve all the problems.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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