Lawmakers create ‘bureaucracy’ to oversee immigrant child care – Tennessee Lookout


Some Republican lawmakers went into shock last year when they heard a plane load of unaccompanied immigrant minors debarked in Chattanooga and left a group of children there.

Rumors swirled that the federal government was dropping off immigrant kids across the state, creating fear they would take over the government and start running the state Legislature, maybe even the executive branch.

In Chattanooga the kids went to La Casa de Sidney, a group home operated by The Baptiste Group, which had a federal contract and the state’s permission to accept children temporarily. 

Outrage grew exponentially, though, when two of the facility’s staff members were accused of having inappropriate relations with minors there. A young man also ran away from the facility and might have gone back home.

The Department of Children Services suspended the license of The Baptiste Group, and Davidson County Chancellor Patricia Moskal in February rejected the group’s claim that the state singled it out and violated its constitutional rights to equal protection. Ultimately, the court decided the facility should be suspended to protect children.

In a joint stipulation filed Tuesday by the Baptiste Group and state, an appeal was dismissed.

The group’s license expired in late February, and the state dropped its revocation notice, since it was moot. Under the legal resolution, Baptiste can reapply for a license subject to new licensing laws, according to the Department of Children Services.

Oddly enough, the state was peeved that the children who were staying at La Casa de Sidney were shipped somewhere else, which kept the state from investigating further, even though the department had already suspended Baptiste’s license. This could lead one to ask: Do you want us to shut down or stay open? Considering the outrage among legislators, they really just wanted the children gone.

A brouhaha that broke out in 2021 when legislators found out a group of immigrant children were temporarily housed in Chattanooga may haven ended with the dismissal of an appeal filed by the Baptiste Group, which housed the kids, was rejected.

The ordeal led to legislative meetings last summer and a bill passed this year by Republican Sen. Dawn White of Murfreesboro and Republican Rep. Dan Howell of Cleveland setting new reporting requirements for child-care facilities.

During floor debate in April, Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro of Nashville questioned why the state needs to create a new bureaucracy just because some lawmakers are upset.

“I think it is an overreaction to the problem,” Yarbro said.

Non-traditional child-care facilities will have to report the number of children they accept and transfer, where they go, the length of stay, the amount of grants and public funds received, names, birth dates, fingerprints, dental records, shoe sizes, hair length and Scrabble skills. OK, so maybe I made up the last three.

White responded that the state needs this new set of regulations because the federal government had been covering up the number of children brought into Tennessee.

The federal government isn’t required to notify the state about the placement of unaccompanied children.

Never mind the fact that The Baptiste Group had to file reports with the state and was subject to the unannounced inspections that led to criminal charges. Yarbro pointed out the state already has rules for child-care facilities. But the Senate forged ahead and passed the measure 25-6.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican, considered last summer’s meetings and the ensuing legislation nothing but grandstanding for right-wing voters. His biggest concern is that immigrant children who are trying to escape horrible situations might not have a safe place to go when they come to the United States.

Based on the way this played out – it’s unclear whether Baptiste will reapply – the options in Tennessee will be extremely limited. But isn’t that what most lawmakers want?

Gone to the dark side

A lobbyist was talking to a state lawmaker one day this year and told him he was head of the state lobbyists’ association, if there is such a thing.

The lawmaker grinned and told him, “That makes you the mayor of rock bottom.”

No doubt, lobbyists get a bad rap, whether they’re pushing or killing bills. But one other thing is also certain: They make a lot more money than legislators. 

The list of lawmakers-turned-lobbyists is lengthy and contains some luminaries, including former Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, who went into the business pretty soon after leaving the Legislature.

Gone to the dark side? Former representative Michael Curcio of Dickson, now a lobbyist. Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Gone to the dark side? Former representative Michael Curcio of Dickson, now a lobbyist. Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

I’m not saying that’s why state Rep. Michael Curcio resigned his House seat last week to take a job with Talbert Government Relations. But considering he dumped the post six months before the November election, some onlookers were miffed that he left constituents without representation.

Curcio previously irked some when he was pictured sitting with supporters of former House Speaker Glen Casada in a photo dubbed “The Last Supper,” taken at a fancy Nashville steak restaurant shortly before Casada’s 2019 fall from grace.

When lawmakers leave the General Assembly, they’re required to take a one-year cooling-off period before they start lobbying legislators or the governor’s administration. Curcio’s move speeds up the time clock by six months.

It’s not the first time he raised eyebrows. 

The Dickson Republican surprised House colleagues this year when he announced he wouldn’t seek another two-year term. After all, he was already chairing the House Judiciary Committee, a position former Speaker Beth Harwell gave him when he was a freshman. 

He seemed primed for a leadership job.

Curcio said this spring he wanted to avoid burnout and gave the impression he wanted to spend more time with family. This week, however, he said his family life had nothing to do with the decision.

“It’s just time for me to move on,” Curcio said. “It’s funny whenever you run for office and people say, ‘Man, don’t go up there and become part of the furniture.’ 

“I hate when people get elected and they stay for 30 years. So when you go up there to do a job and then leave, everybody says, ‘Well, why are you leaving? It’s ’cause you told me not to stay.’ Citizen legislator.”

Curcio was hard to figure out. Some people thought he was an attorney, though he isn’t. Others might have thought he was a bit arrogant.

He angered some when he failed to deliver on a promise to investigate allegations that Rep. David Byrd had improper contact with high school girls when he coached basketball at Wayne County High School in the ’80s. 

Curcio caught people’s attention in 2021 when he stood up to Rep. John Ragan’s nullification resolution, which pretty much rebirthed South Carolina’s secession effort that wound up sparking the Civil War.

He also bucked the party on other key matters, voting against a Republican-backed COVID-19 bill passed in a 2021 special session that could have put businesses at odds with federal regulations.

But Jill Talbert clearly thinks he’ll be a good fit with her firm, one of the few female-founded, female-owned government relations businesses in the state.

“Chairman Curico’s experience in state government, his ability to navigate complex regulatory issues, and his breadth of knowledge of Tennessee’s Capitol Hill will make this a great partnership,” she said. 

He will become an equity member of the firm she founded in 2012.

An odd contrast

The Dickson County Commission is set to fill the void left by Curcio in District 69 with an interim House member at its June 20 meeting, according to reports.

However, the Shelby County Commission has opted not to replace London Lamar, who left her Memphis House seat earlier this year when she was appointed to fill the Senate opening left by Katrina Robinson when she was expelled for a felony fraud conviction related to her nursing school business.

Shelby County Commissioner Edmund Ford broached the matter this week, but nothing was done to fill the empty seat.

State Rep. Torrey Harris, whose address was drawn into Lamar’s House District 90 this year as part of the Legislature’s redistricting plan, is apparently considered the incumbent for that post. He faces an opponent, Barbara Farmer-Tolbert, in the August Democratic primary. Lamar is up against Rhonnie Brewer and Marion Latroy Alexandria-Williams Jr. in Senate District 33.  

Back in the saddle for now

Davidson County Chancellor Russell Perkins ordered the Tennessee Republican Party to put Franklin businessman Robby Starbuck back on the 5th Congressional District ballot after determining the party violated the Tennessee Open Meetings Act when it voted to remove him from the race.

Whether his name winds up before voters is uncertain.

The Secretary of State’s Office declined to comment on a matter under litigation when asked if it would be restoring his name to the ballot, according to Associated Press reporter Kimberlee Kruesi. It was highly likely the matter would be appealed before a June 10 deadline to finalize the ballot.

In fact, the Tennessee Republican Party is asking the Supreme Court to get involved, and the Secretary of State’s Office requested to become a petitioner in the case, according to Kruesi.

Back on the ballot? Republican candidate for the 5th congressional district Robby Starbuck was placed back on the ballot by a Nashville judge after the Tennessee Republican Party questioned his bona fides and gave him the boot.

Starbuck sent out a celebratory statement late last Friday saying, “We won.” He better not start counting chickens.

Based on some of the recent decisions by the Supreme Court, the law isn’t always what it says.

Key Dems back Martin

Dr. Jason Martin, Democratic candidate for governor, released a list of endorsements this week. He is running against Carnita Atwater and JB Smiley Jr., both of Memphis.

Those backing Martin are: Sen. Heidi Campbell of Nashville, a candidate for the 5th Congressional District seat, Rep. Vincent Dixie of Nashville, chairman of House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis, chairman of the Black caucus, Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, Rep. Torrey Harris of Memphis, Rep. Bo Mitchell of Davidson County, Rep. Sam McKenzie of Knoxville, Rep. Bob Freeman of Nashville and Rep. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville.

Making a national statement

Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat who chairs the Senate Democratic Caucus, is being featured in a documentary looking into life sentences meted out to juveniles convicted of murder.

In Tennessee, even those under 18 found guilty of first-degree murder must serve 51 years in prison, despite decisions by 32 other states to ban life without parole for juveniles.

The documentary, “51 Years Behind Bars” by Al Jazeera English’s “Fault Lines,” delves into the case of Almeer Nance, a man serving life for an armed robbery in 1996 in which his accomplice killed a Radio Shack clerk. He was 16 at the time and sentenced as an adult even though he didn’t pull the trigger.

Akbari has sponsored legislation to change the state’s sentencing law to give juveniles an opportunity at parole, saying each case should be looked at individually, taking into consideration the defendant’s childhood experiences.

Sen. Ramesh Akbar, pictured in the Tennessee Capitol with a portrait of former Gov. Phil Bredesen, is a lawyer by trade and is featured in a new documentary on Tennessee's sentencing laws for juveniles. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Ramesh Akbar, pictured in the Tennessee Capitol with a portrait of former Gov. Phil Bredesen, is a lawyer by trade and is featured in a new documentary on Tennessee’s sentencing laws for juveniles. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“Their brain does not fully develop until they’re 20, 21, between 21 and 25, so we know a lot more about brain development and if that juvenile is thinking like an adult or if they’re thinking like a child,” Akbari says in the documentary.

The Senate Democratic Caucus also points out 80% of the youths sentenced to life in prison are Black, including those in Knox County where Nance was convicted. The documentary can be seen at:

“Keep your hands off of my stash”

The Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance and Tennessee Ethics Commission levied a $1,000 civil penalty against the daughter of former state Sen. Bill Ketron, now the mayor of Rutherford County.

The bureau notified Ketron, a former state executive committee member of the Tennessee Republican Party, in February 2017 she hadn’t filed a statement of disclosure of interests on time, as required by state law. The letter noted that the commission would assess a civil penalty of $25 per day against her if she didn’t file within five days.

Time went by, and Ketron, whose last name is now Randolph, never complied, according to the legal filing. Consider this another brick in the wall.

She was also handling her father’s state accounts, which led to a world of hurt for both of them. The Registry of Election Finance levied a $135,000 civil penalty against Ketron last year for 474 findings affecting about $300,000 from separate audits of his Senate, Quest PAC and mayoral campaign accounts. He finally agreed to pay but made it clear she had been handling the accounts and state reports.

Considering all of their dealings with the Bureau of Ethics, you’d have thought he and his daughter would take care of the disclosure form at some point in the last five years. You’d be wrong.

Ketron lost the recent Republican primary for the Rutherford County mayor’s seat. That outcome can be tied, in part, to his dealings with the Registry board.

Now it appears there’s one more bill for the family to button up. They must hate money – or spend it like rock stars.

“New car, caviar, four star, daydream/ Think I’ll buy me a football team.”

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