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UPDATE: In Tennessee, a cover-up is unraveling
On April 20, Tennessee Representative Scotty Campbell (R) abruptly resigned hours after News Channel 5 Nashville reported that a legislative subcommittee found that he had sexually harassed two legislative interns.
According to the report, Campbell told one of the interns that "he was in his apartment imagining that we were performing sexual acts on one another and how it drove him crazy knowing that was happening so close to him." He also "offered to give her cannabis gummies to see her tattoos and piercings" and "begged [her] for several hugs." When the intern declined, she said Campbell "reached out his hand towards me and grabbed me around my neck."
On March 29, the Workplace Discrimination and Harassment Subcommittee sent Speaker Cameron Sexton (R) a memorandum stating that Campbell violated the legislature's Workplace Discrimination and Harassment Policy. But no disciplinary action was taken against Campbell, who was a member of Sexton's leadership team.
On Monday, a follow-up report revealed that the legislature spent at least $8,841 in taxpayer money to address the issues created by Campbell's conduct. One intern, who was living in the same apartment building as Campbell, was given $935 in cash to cover the cost of her rental deposit. She was told that "the person supplying the cash would be reimbursed by the state." The Director of Legislative Administration, Connie Ridley, who works for Sexton, paid $2,495 to move the intern's belongings to another part of the state. And another $5,411.76 was spent "for a 22-day stay at the TownPlace Suites near the Tennessee state Capitol," where the intern resided for the remainder of her internship.
The fact that the intern was provided with nearly $1,000 in cash suggests that there was an effort to cover up Campbell's behavior and the expenditures used to smooth things over. Further, according to an email the intern sent to her university, the intern was "implored by director Ridley not to communicate about the instances with anyone." The intern said that "[a]lthough I am incredibly grateful, it feels as if they are trying to buy my silence."
Sexton claimed that he was in the dark about the details of Campbell's conduct until it was reported by the media. "That process does not provide any details on any matter to the speakers. And so anything that happened, I am not privy to," Sexton said. Sexton also claimed he could not request details about Campbell's misconduct because it is "protected information."
Sexton's claims are directly contradicted by the legislature's sexual harassment policy. The policy states that, after a sexual harassment complaint is filed with "any staff director" or "the chief clerks," it must be "reported to the…Speaker." After the Speaker receives a sexual harassment complaint, the Speaker sends it to the Director of Legislative Administration, Ridley, to conduct a staff investigation. At the conclusion of that investigation, the report is sent to the Speaker.
The process does not preclude the Speaker from learning about sexual harassment complaints. It requires the Speaker to be informed. The Speaker has to be informed because any disciplinary measures, including loss of committee assignments or other privileges, can only be implemented by the Speaker.
Ridley is also not authorized to expend thousands of dollars to relocate an intern — or for any purpose — without the authorization of Sexton. As Speaker, Sexton is responsible for the House budget. Ridley cannot reallocate funds without Sexton's authorization.
Sexton claims that information about the expenditures to relocate an intern is "protected information that even I cannot get." But there is no basis for that claim either in the legislature's Workplace Discrimination and Harassment Policy or Tennessee law.
How things work in the Tennessee legislature
Cade Cothren, the chief of staff for Sexton's predecessor, former Speaker Glen Casada (R), said that Sexton's story is not credible. On Twitter, Cothren wrote that "the Speaker’s Office is involved in every facet of the sexual harassment complaint process, from beginning to end."
Cothren cited the 2019 sexual harassment complaint against former Representative Rick Staples (D), when Casada was Speaker. According to Cothren, "the Speaker’s office was kept in the loop regarding every interview and piece of information gathered from the investigation."
Cothren provided Popular Information with text messages between himself and Ridley, who was in charge of the investigations of both Staples and Campbell, that substantiate his claims. In a March 2019 message, Cothren asks Ridley for an update on the "Staples situation." Ridley responds that "it's getting worse," and they arrange a meeting for Ridley to brief Cothren.
Cothren responds by directing Ridley to move the workstation of one of Staples' staff members. A few days later, they arrange to meet again to discuss the status of the Staples investigation.
The sexual harassment policy in place today, signed by Sexton, is identical to the policy in place in 2019, signed by Casada.
The text messages undercut the idea, advanced by Sexton, that Ridley is prohibited from sharing detailed information about the investigation with the Speaker. Although the sexual harassment policy prohibits sharing information "to anyone not directly involved in an investigation," the Speaker has a central role in every investigation of misconduct. The policy also allows sharing information with anyone involved in "the implementation of corrective action," which also includes the Speaker.
Casada and Cothren are currently under federal criminal indictment in an unrelated matter. Ridley and Sexton did not immediately respond to a request for comment.