Where does the Tennessee House Speaker actually live?
Last week, Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R) led the charge to expel two members of the Tennessee House, Justin Jones (D) and Justin Pearson (D). Jones and Pearson were expelled for expressing solidarity with protesters in the House gallery who were calling on the legislature to take action after a mass shooting left six people, including three children, dead. (Sexton also voted to expel Representative Gloria Johnson (D), but she retained her seat.) According to Sexton, Jones and Pearson were expelled for breaking "several rules of decorum and procedure" by speaking from the floor without being recognized. No one in the history of the Tennessee legislature has ever been expelled for a procedural violation.
But while Sexton is imposing draconian punishment for technical violations of procedural rules, an investigation by Popular Information reveals that Sexton may be in violation of the fundamental rules of the legislature prescribed in the Tennessee State Constitution. Specifically, Article II, Section 5a of the Tennessee State Constitution states: "Each district shall be represented by a qualified voter of that district."
Sexton represents the 25th district, a community located about 115 miles east of Nashville. It is a deep red district, and in 2022, Sexton won reelection with more than 82% of the vote. There is evidence, however, that Sexton is not a qualified voter of the 25th district.
On his official website, Sexton lists his address in Crossville as 186 Homestead Drive, a more than 4,000 sq foot, four-bedroom home that sits on more than an acre of land. But, according to property records, Sexton sold that house in October 2020 for $420,000. Sexton then purchased a much smaller, 1200 sq foot, two-bedroom condo in a nearby retirement community. Sexton listed that condo as his residence when he filed to run for reelection in 2022.
Under Section 2-2-122(a)(5) of the Tennessee Code, "[t]he place where a married person's spouse and family have their habitation is presumed to be the person's place of residence." Sexton has two adult children from a previous marriage. He has one school-aged child with his current spouse, Lacey. There is significant evidence that Sexton's wife and family do not live in Crossville.
Sexton's youngest child is enrolled at John Edwards Classical Academy, a private Christian school outside of Nashville. Sexton and his spouse are shown regularly attending events on the school's Facebook page. The school is more than two hours from the Sextons' purported residence in Crossville.
During the legislative session, representatives who live a significant distance from Nashville generally stay in Nashville during the week and commute home during the weekend. But the Tennessee legislature is only in session from January to April. According to one of Sexton's Crossville neighbors, he lives elsewhere year-round.
The neighbor said that Sexton is only around on weekends, except occasionally in the summer when school is out of session. Sexton's presence is conspicuous because he lives at the end of a small cul-de-sac and, as Tennessee House Speaker, is often accompanied by law enforcement. "He says he lives here," the neighbor said, "but he's not here."
The neighbor shared this information with Popular Information on the condition of anonymity because they were fearful of the implications of speaking publicly about one of the most powerful people in Tennessee.
Sexton's office did not respond to a detailed request for comment about his residency. This is how Sexton has dealt with the issue when his residency was previously questioned. In February, Sexton was repeatedly asked on camera by the Tennessee Holler if he lives in Crossville or Nashville. He responds by ignoring the question:
If Sexton wanted to relocate his family to the Nashville suburbs, why didn't he simply run in the new district? Well, his child's school is located in District 50, which leans Democratic. It is currently represented in the Tennessee House by a Democrat, Bo Mitchell. In 2020 and 2022, Mitchell ran unopposed, collecting 100% of the vote. In 2018, Mitchell beat his Republican opponent by 13 points.
The cost to Tennessee taxpayers
While the evidence suggests that Sexton lives in the Nashville area, Sexton still collects tens of thousands of dollars from Tennessee taxpayers based on the premise that he is a full-time resident of Crossville.
Under Tennessee law, during the legislative session, all members receive a per diem expense "for meals and incidentals equal to the allowance granted federal employees for such expenses in the Nashville area." In 2022, that was around $79 per day. But members who live more than 50 miles outside of Nashville are entitled to a much larger per diem, $313 in 2022, to cover the cost of lodging in Nashville. These per diems are also available when the legislature is out of session if a member has to travel to Nashville to conduct official business.
Sexton has taken the larger per diem, which is pegged to the cost of a hotel room in Nashville. On the form, Sexton claims a roundtrip commute of 236 miles. During the 2022 legislative session alone, he billed taxpayers $19,093.
He also billed taxpayers another $16,276 for travel to Nashville when the legislature was not in session, for a total of $35,369 in 2022. This money is listed as "non-taxable" because it is supposed to reimburse members of the legislature for actual expenses incurred. In contrast, Mitchell, who lives in the area outside of Nashville where Sexton lives the majority of the time, claimed $4,977 for all of 2022.
In 2021, when there was a short special session in October, Sexton claimed an even larger amount in per diem expenses, $42,617. In the same year, Mitchell claimed just $5,810. So far in 2023, Sexton has claimed $14,085, while Mitchell has claimed $2,528. In total, Sexton may have overcharged Tennessee taxpayers as much as $78,756 since 2020.
Sexton's office did not respond to a detailed request for comment about his claimed per diem expenses.