Not-yet-signed Tennessee voucher bill faces new scrutiny amid report of FBI probe

Education voucher legislation on the verge of becoming law in Tennessee is facing renewed opposition amid a report of an FBI investigation related to the circumstances of its passage.

Nashville TV station WTVF reported Thursday that FBI agents have begun interviewing Tennessee lawmakers about whether any improper incentives were offered to pass Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account bill in the state House. That bill now awaits Lee’s signature.

Chalkbeat has not independently verified that an investigation is underway. But the TV report already has triggered a new round of resistance to the controversial legislation at a time when House Speaker Glen Casada — who played a key role in pushing it through — is under a cloud of scandal.

An FBI spokesman declined on Friday to speak about the report. “We don’t comment one way or another on whether we’re doing an investigation,” said Joel Siskovic from the bureau’s Memphis office.

And a spokeswoman for the governor also declined to comment other than to say that the administration has not been contacted by the FBI.

Elected officials in Memphis and Nashville, the two districts affected by the voucher bill, bristled over the latest news.

“If the [FBI] rumors are verified, if incentives were given to folks for this, it validates even more that this is a bad piece of legislation,” said Shante Avant, who chairs the board for Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district.

And Gloria Johnson, a Democratic representative from Knoxville, urged Tennesseans on Friday to ask the Republican governor not to sign the bill.

“I am asking EVERYONE to contact the Governor asking him to veto the voucher legislation as there is an FBI investigation and passing it while it is under investigation is not a message we want to send to TN families,” tweeted Johnson, a retired teacher who voted against the governor’s plan.

Speaking with reporters Thursday evening, Lee said he would ask Casada to resign if Casada worked for him due to an emerging scandal about sexually explicit and misogynistic text messages that the Franklin Republican exchanged with Cade Cothren, his chief of staff until his resignation this week, as well as reports that the speaker’s former top aide had made racist comments and tried to frame a young protester who took issue with Casada’s approach to voting rights.

But Lee did not answer when asked if he would still sign the bill under the cloud of a possible FBI investigation, saying instead that he thought support for his proposal had come about through legal advocacy.

“I met with a lot of lawmakers over the process of developing this legislation for education savings accounts, and I shared my passion with each one of them certainly to persuade them this was something that was good … for public education and good for the future of the state,” Lee said. “That’s the approach we took.”

The legitimacy of last month’s historic House vote already was called into question over an unusual parliamentary move by Casada that changed the outcome. After the chamber’s electronic voting system showed a 49-49 deadlock, which would effectively kill the measure, the speaker held the vote open for 38 minutes and refused to order a tally while he and the bill’s sponsor, Majority Leader William Lamberth, spoke with several legislators about changing their positions.

When the speaker returned to the podium, Rep. Jason Zachary, a Knoxville Republican who was part of those discussions, flipped his vote from “no” to “yes” to break the tie and pass the governor’s signature education initiative.

At the time, Zachary said he switched his vote after getting assurances that his local school district would be removed from the legislation and not affected by the voucher program.

That kind of assurance to sway a lawmaker is legal, but some other kinds are not, including promises of campaign contributions or personal payments.

Gov. Bill Lee speaks with reporters after the Senate passes his education savings account proposal. (Photo by Marta W. Aldrich/Chalkbeat)

The FBI is the lead federal investigator to ferret out public corruption at the federal, state, and local levels. The agency’s most recent highly publicized investigation at Tennessee’s State Capitol began in 2002 while working with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation in a bribery sting operation known as the “Tennessee Waltz.”

That investigation led to convictions or guilty pleas from a dozen state and local public officials, including five sitting and former state lawmakers who collected cash in exchange for shepherding bills through the legislature.

Any results from an FBI investigation could take a long time to emerge. But state lawmakers who have opposed the voucher legislation say they don’t expect Lee to change course.

Said Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat from Memphis who was on the legislature’s negotiating committee for the legislation, “I doubt he would veto his signature policy.”

Chalkbeat reporters Caroline Bauman, Philissa Cramer, and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.