VOL. 132 | NO. 32 | Tuesday, February 14, 2017
Lovell Resigns Tennessee House Seat, Democrats Seek Probe
By Sam Stockard
NASHVILLE – House Democrats are calling for a probe into the sudden resignation of first-term Rep. Mark Lovell, who denies being involved in sexual misconduct as he leaves the state Legislature after just one month.
But they are likely to run into a high hurdle because the Legislature’s Workplace Discrimination Policy governs only members and staff, not those who resign.
“If a member or staff were no longer an employee, the Tennessee General Assembly would no longer have jurisdiction,” according to House Speaker Beth Harwell’s office.
Meanwhile, Lovell maintains he did nothing wrong after news reports said he allegedly touched a woman inappropriately.
“I stand by my statement that no improprieties happened and the allegations are completely false,” Lovell, an Eads Republican, said in a statement.
Lovell called his decision to leave the post “tremendously difficult” and issued an apology to constituents but said he realized over the last several months he was not able to meet family needs “both physically and mentally” while trying to serve constituents.
“Again, I am extremely grateful for all of the trust the great people in my district have placed in me and I apologize greatly for not being able to fulfill my campaign promises to them,” he said in the statement.
House Democrats, however, said in a statement Lovell resigned after allegations of sexual misconduct with a woman last week.
“We’re just coming off this extraordinary scandal that we had with Jeremy Durham and if reports are true, we already have another problem. We need a full investigation into that but one that protects the confidentiality of the victims,” House Minority Leader Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, said in a statement.
Democrats also want to repeal the so-called Jeremy’s Law, a bill named for former Rep. Jeremy Durham that passed in 2016 and raises barriers for state employees who are alleged victims of sexual harassment by making them liable for attorneys’ fees if they lose in court.
Said Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, “It was an outrage that Jeremy’s Law passed last year at the very time that the Durham scandal was unfolding. Now we are barely into the session and we have another problem – we have to accept that one reason may be that we unwisely raised unprecedented barriers to harassment victims seeking justice.”
Mitchell is sponsoring House Bill 1355 to repeal the law he believes can stop interns and administrative assistants from taking someone to court for sexual harassment. He also contends it is ludicrous that Lovell’s situation can’t be investigated because he resigned.
“I don’t care about that representative, to be frank with you. I care about that representative’s victim. … And I think it’s about time the members of this General Assembly stood up for the staff, the interns and the people who really make this place run and quick protecting these perpetrators of crimes.”
Lovell sent a resignation letter to House Speaker Beth Harwell stating legislative work was taking more time than expected and that he would be leaving the elected position effective Tuesday, Feb. 14.
“It has been an honor to be elected and to serve in the Tennessee House of Representatives. However, the time requirements to represent my constituents are more demanding than anticipated. Thus, I do not have the time necessary to devote to my business interests and to my family. It has become evident that I cannot devote the time I need to my elected position,” the letter states.
Lovell’s letter states his immediate resignation would give Shelby County time to appoint an interim member to represent the 95th House District.
Under state law, the Shelby County Commission could appoint an interim state representative until a special election can be held, 100 days after the governor issues a schedule for primary and general elections.
The Tennessean reported Lovell resigned amid an investigation into allegations he had inappropriate contact with a woman.
Connie Ridley, director of Legislative Administration, which would conduct an inquiry, could not confirm any investigation is under way either. The General Assembly policy on Workplace Discrimination and Harassment contains a confidentiality clause stating no information about a complaint will be released to anyone not involved “in an investigation, lawsuit or corrective action,” Ridley said.
Neither Harwell nor Lt. Gov. Randy McNally could confirm a legislative investigation is under way.
But on the heels of Durham’s removal from the House of Representatives after an attorney general investigation found he acted inappropriately toward 22 women, Harwell said sexual and workplace harassment will not be tolerated in the House.
“Any complaint would be fully investigated and would follow the process outlined in the Tennessee General Assembly’s newly revised Workplace Discrimination Policy,” she said in a statement.
“If a complaint is filed and still in the investigation phase, the process is confidential in order to protect the identities of the victim(s) and witnesses, and so I would be unable to comment. However, if a violation is found, it will absolutely be a public record, as stated in the policy, and appropriate action would be taken.”
McNally said in a statement he would not comment on any “ongoing investigation” into sexual harassment complaint until it is complete.
“The Senate takes any and all sexual harassment complaints extremely seriously. If the complaint were deemed valid, the Senate would demand a full and public vetting of the matter immediately. The Senate is committed to taking all actions within the law and the rules to ensure a safe workplace for our Senate staff members.”
House Majority Leader Glen Casada could not confirm any sort of investigation is being conducted into Lovell. He said he received Lovell’s resignation Tuesday morning and had no reason to believe he was resigning for a different reason than stated. Anything else would be “pure speculation,” he said.
“It should raise the eyebrows of the media. But from my perspective, he turned his letter in, he wrote on here that … so I’ve got to believe that’s what it is,” Casada said.
The House Republican leader, though, said he could understand how someone would leave this soon into their first term.
“You get here, it’s different, it’s tough. You’re three and a half hours from home,” Casada said. “He’s got kids at home. The wife all of a sudden says, ‘You’re gone Monday through Thursday?’ I could see a member (thinking) like, ‘Oh, I made a mistake.’”
The Shelby County Republican defeated longtime Rep. Curry Todd in the Republican primary in 2016 after Todd was accused of pulling up Lovell’s campaign signs. Todd pleaded not guilty after being arrested, and Lovell paid his bond, according to reports.
Lovell runs the Delta Fair through his company Universal Fairs and Expo South, and he also owns apartment complexes and the Stonebridge Golf Club in Lakeland. He won 56 percent of the votes to Todd’s 18.9 percent to capture the District 95 primary.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com.