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Watchdog group requests criminal investigation of Tennessee Speaker Cameron Sexton
Today, a non-profit watchdog group, the Campaign for Accountability (CFA), sent a letter to the United States Attorney in Nashville requesting a criminal investigation of Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R). The request, which was also sent to the Tennessee District Attorney, centers on whether Sexton sought and received excessive per diem expenses. The group asks the officials to "immediately investigate whether Mr. Sexton has violated any state or federal criminal laws, including felony theft, honest services fraud, and tax fraud."
The letter draws extensively on Popular Information's reporting, including Sexton's secret purchase on a $600,000 home in Nashville. CFA also notes that Sexton has admitted his family is based in Nashville, and not the Crossville district he represents two hours away. This creates a presumption under Tennessee residency law that he lives in Nashville.
CFA explains that if Sexton does, in fact, live in Nashville, he is entitled only to the federal allowance for meals and incidentals when working in Nashville, about $79 per day. But Sexton repeatedly claimed the larger per diem payment of over $300 reserved for members whose "principal residence" is 50 miles or more from the state capitol.
How did Sexton get these per diem expenses approved? Sexton approved them himself:
While Speaker Sexton appears to live in Nashville year-round, he has claimed the lodging per diem allowed to legislators who live outside of Nashville. Speaker Sexton’s conduct is all the more egregious because as Speaker of the House, it appears he is responsible for approving all per diem requests, including his own, before they are forwarded to the Office of Legislative Administration for payment. This afforded Speaker Sexton the opportunity to approve his own forms, obviating the need for him to explain to another person why, as a legislator who lived within 50 miles of the capitol, he was entitled to take a per diem for lodging.
CFA argues that Sexton "appears to have deliberately and wrongly applied for, self-approved, and improperly received taxpayer-funded payments totaling approximately $79,954."
CFA states that Sexton's actions may constitute "theft of property" under Tennessee law, which is a felony. The group notes that the Tennessee District Attorney prosecuted another public official, former Nashville Mayor Megan Barry (D), for "theft of property" when she improperly used public funds for her personal benefit. If Sexton violated the statute by collecting excessive per diem payments, it would be "punishable by eight to thirty years in prison and up to $25,000 in fines."
CFA also argues Sexton's conduct may violate the federal honest services wire fraud statute and federal tax law, since Sexton designated his per diem payments as "tax exempt." The group says the payments "should have been reported as taxable wages because he was not traveling away from home when he received the per diems."
CFA contended the Tennessee legislature should not wait for the conclusion of a potential criminal investigation to act. “The Tennessee legislature, which recently – and in record speed – expelled two legislators for protesting on the House floor, ought to just as quickly consider whether Speaker Sexton, as the highest official in the House, should be expelled for his apparent ethical lapses," CFA Executive Director Michelle Kuppersmith said.
The other Sexton scandal
Last week, Nashville News Channel 5 reported that a member of the Tennessee House Republican leadership, Representative Scotty Campbell (R), "was recently found guilty of sexually harassing at least one legislative intern, likely two, by an ethics subcommittee acting in secret."
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 [an intern] for several hugs." When the intern declined, she said Campbell "reached out his hand towards me and grabbed me around my neck."
Sexton was informed of the violation on March 29 but did not disclose it publicly and took no action. Campbell resigned a few hours after the News Channel 5 report.
Sexton claimed that he was in the dark about the allegations. "At no point during that time am I aware of the information about the details. The first time I learned about that was when you actually reported it," Sexton told News Channel 5. He also claimed that he was prohibited from requesting more information because he is not part of the investigation.
But Sexton's claims are belied by the legislature's policy on workplace discrimination and harassment, which Sexton created along with the Tennessee Senate President. According to the policy, a complaint can be filed with "any staff director," "the chief clerks," or the Speaker. Regardless of where a complaint is filed, the first step is for the complaint to be "reported to the…Speaker." The Speaker then assigns to the complaint to the Director of Legislative Administration "for immediate investigation." Upon conclusion of the staff investigation, the Speaker forwards the complaint and the investigation to the Subcommittee on Workplace Discrimination and Harassment. That committee considers the evidence and sends its findings to the Speaker.
Sexton claims that it would be "illegal" for him to have requested more information about the violation. But the policy allows information about the complaint to be shared with anyone "directly involved with the investigation" or "the implementation of corrective action." Sexton, as Speaker, is both directly involved with the investigation and the person empowered to take corrective action, including removing a member from committees.
Further, Sexton's claim of ignorance is undercut by the report that "the legislature also paid thousands of dollars to get one victim out of her lease at Capitol Towers, where she and Campbell each had apartments; paid to move her furniture back home and to put her up in a downtown hotel for the rest of her internship." Sexton claims information about how much money was spent and who approved it is "is protected information that even I cannot get."
This claim is hard to believe. Sexton is the Speaker of the Tennessee House and responsible for how the body expends taxpayer money. There is no other person who is empowered to approve the expenditure of money and then keep that information secret from Sexton.
Tennessee Democrats call for Sexton's resignation
Citing both Sexton's residency scandal and his handling of the sexual harassment and assault complaint against Campbell, the Tennessee Democratic Party passed a resolution on Saturday calling for Sexton's resignation. The resolution draws extensively from this newsletter's reporting:
WHEREAS, Reporter Judd Legum has reported investigative findings in his independent news outlet, “Popular Information,” showing Speaker Sexton does not reside within TN House District 25, including (1) Speaker Sexton claims he resides in a 1200 square foot, two-bedroom condominium in Crossville, TN, (2) he secretly purchased a four-bedroom, 2600 square foot $600,000 home in Nashville through a trust; and (3) Sexton’s [child]... is enrolled full time at a private school there;
The resolution concludes that "the actions of Speaker Sexton violate the trust of the people of Tennessee and undermine the integrity of our democratic institutions; while threatening the sanctity of our democracy" and demands his "immediate resignation."