NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A two-year FBI sting operation nicknamed the "Tennessee Waltz" (search) has led to the arrest of several lawmakers. But the probe isn't the state's first dance with scandal. Government corruption cases dot the past three decades of Tennessee history. In the 1970s, the "TennPar" investigation found that associates of then-Gov. Ray Blanton were selling pardons, while another corruption probe in the late '80s and early '90s broke up illegal gambling rings run by bingo operators.
Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, noted that government scandals run in cycles but "you don't want this to be normal procedure."
"These things happen all over the place, and the frequency depends on the political culture," Oppenheimer said. "My sense is that when you have a cleanup like this, in following elections you have more focus on candidates' character."
The current federal investigation, nicknamed the "Tennessee Waltz," examined how state contracts were awarded during former state Gov. Don Sundquist' (search) administration.
The fallout has led to multiple arrests, and state Sen. John Ford (search) has resigned from office after more than 30 years in the Senate. Besides Ford, Sens. Kathryn Bowers and Ward Crutchfield; Rep. Chris Newton; and former state Sen. Roscoe Dixon were charged with taking bribes from a phony company created by the FBI.
Ford also was charged with threatening to kill a witness.
Gov. Phil Bredesen (search) said he realized the "public's confidence in state government has been shaken," and was prepared to call a special session this summer to consider tougher ethics laws.
Tennessee has some of the weakest ethics laws in the nation. Lawmakers are not required to disclose sources of income, and lobbyists do not have to report how much they spend wining and dining legislators. A new law makes it a crime for Tennessee lawmakers to receive consulting fees.
Before his arrest Thursday, Ford had attracted state and federal investigations into his business dealings, work on behalf of state contractors and campaign spending. His troubles were credited as the impetus behind a tough ethics bill passed by the Legislature this session.
Bredesen cautioned that the recent arrests suggest further reform may be needed.
"If so we are committed to constructing and passing such legislation," Bredesen said last week.