Longtime ethics champion McNally poised to become speaker

Sen. Randy McNally. Photo credit: Tennessee General Assembly
Sen. Randy McNally. Photo credit: Tennessee General Assembly

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Republican state Sen. Randy McNally, a longtime champion of ethics and transparency, is poised to become the next speaker of the Tennessee Senate.

Senate Republicans, who control 28 of 33 seats in the upper chamber of the General Assembly, are scheduled to meet Thursday to nominate their leaders. McNally has been the consensus choice to succeed Speaker Ron Ramsey, who has retired.

McNally played a key undercover role in the FBI’s Rocky Top bingo investigation in the 1980s, and later in the response to the agency’s 2005 Tennessee Waltz bribery sting operation that sent five former lawmakers to prison.

As a member of the state House in 1980, McNally was among lawmakers voting to oust then-Rep. Robert Fisher, an Elizabethton Republican had been convicted of bribery for asking for a bribe to kill a bill.

Fisher was the last sitting member expelled from either chamber of the General Assembly until the House ousted Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, over sexual harassment allegations in September.

McNally had been elected to the state Senate by the time the FBI launched its investigation into fishy bingo operations in Tennessee. Frustrated by state regulators ignoring his concerns, McNally called the FBI to complain and ultimately agreed to wear a wire during his interactions in the legislative office complex.

McNally was almost immediately offered an envelope with $300 in cash from a lobbyist helping the gambling operations, which the lawmaker did not report as a campaign contribution under the direction of his FBI handlers.

Once lobbyists saw he was willing to take money off the books, other offers started coming McNally’s way – including one for $10,000 if he would vote in favor of a horse racing bill.

“At first, it was rather stressful,” McNally recalled a decade later. “You don’t get used to walking around with a recorder on your back.”

The probe eventually led to a prison sentence for Democratic state Rep. Tommy Burnett and the suicides of Secretary of State Gentry Crowell and legislator Ted Ray Miller.

The 2005 Tennessee Waltz operation involved an FBI front company that secretly recorded 2,000 hours of video and audio of lawmakers being wined and dined – and paid off in cash by undercover agents.

After the lawmakers’ arrests, McNally was among the first lawmakers to write then-Gov. Phil Bredesen calling for stronger ethics, campaign finance and transparency rules in Tennessee.

Open government advocates had hoped the scandal would prompt the first significant update to the state’s “Sunshine in Government” laws since they were enacted in the aftermath of Watergate in 1974.

While McNally’s committee on ethics pushed for a series of changes in the GOP-controlled Senate, Democrats who then ran the House pushed back with several provisions that would have favored local governments and elected officials. The resulting compromise was a watered-down ethics bill and an agreement to delay some of the bigger issues until later years.

McNally in 2006 expressed disappointment in the decision to punt.

“I feel a little bit negligent saying, ‘We give up; we can’t accomplish this,'” he said at the time. “We should at least try.”

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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