Newspaper article News Sentinel

Attorney General Issues Opinion on Confidentiality of Ethics Panel's Audits

Newspaper article News Sentinel

Attorney General Issues Opinion on Confidentiality of Ethics Panel's Audits

Article excerpt

Humphrey on the Hill

Tom Humphrey's blog on politics and legislative news in Tennessee

NASHVILLE -- Attorney General Bob Cooper says information about lobbyist dealings uncovered in an Ethics Commission audit must be kept secret unless it leads to an administrative hearing on possible violation of state laws.

Cooper's opinion was issued in response to a request by the Tennessee Ethics Commission following a September hearing on contentions that lobbyist Jennifer Murphy violated a state law in contracts with one of her clients, Tennessee Disability Coalition.

Linda Knight, a former Ethics Commission member serving as attorney for the Disability Coalition, argued that the 2006 statute creating the commission makes everything obtained through an audit confidential -- including an auditor's reference to information on the coalition's revenue and expenses reported as a nonprofit corporation to the Internal Revenue Service and deemed public information under federal law.

On that point, the attorney general's opinion says Knight was mistaken "because information readily available in the public domain has no expectation of confidentiality."

The opinion cites -- as did Knight at the hearing -- wording in the commission-creating statute that says lobbyist audit information is to be kept confidential "in the manner and to the extent that the confidentiality of tax information is maintained" by the state Department of Revenue in dealing with taxpayer records.

At the hearing, commission members questioned whether that meant only tax information uncovered in a lobbyist audit. The opinion says that is not the case; the general confidentiality requirement is not limited to information regarding taxes paid by the lobbyist or client.

But the opinion also notes there are several exceptions to confidentiality of tax records, one of them being when the information is relevant to an administrative hearing and another being when the taxpayer consents to disclosure. …

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