Lawmaker apologizes, denies investigation amid claims

Friday, April 5, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 14

NASHVILLE (AP) — A Democratic Tennessee lawmaker on Thursday apologized for having his behavior possibly misinterpreted after being accused of sexual misconduct, but denied he was under investigation.

"Unfortunately, this has been used as a tool and an avenue for political character assassination," said Rep. Rick Staples of Knoxville. "I will move forward from this and once again I will move forward with the knowledge and understanding."

The allegations were first reported by The Tennessean on Wednesday, where a woman told the newspaper Staples inappropriately touched her by grabbing and holding on to her waist while standing behind her during a recent visit to the state capitol. Staples allegedly also made several inappropriate comments about her appearance.

The woman — who was not identified in the report — said she reported the encounter to Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart, of Nashville, but added he only responded after she followed up with his office.

The Associated Press has not been able to independently verify the woman's claims.

"If currently or in the past I've had any words or actions that have been misinterpreted, that is due an apology, and I submit that apology," Staples said.

Shortly after the woman's accusation was made public, Republican leaders told reporters on Thursday that Democratic leaders may have violated House ethics rules for waiting too long to report the possible misconduct.

"I think the other part is...I think there was potentially an issue that wasn't reported immediately like it's supposed to be by House rules. That's another thing we're questioning," said Republican Majority Caucus Chairman Cameron Sexton, a Republican from Crossville.

House Speaker Glen Casada, a Republican from Franklin, declined to comment about the specific allegations. Casada added that the House's sexual harassment policy prevented him from confirming or denying Staples' claim he was currently or had been under investigation by the ethics panel.

"If there was an investigation, it cannot be commented on," Casada said.

However, Sexton hinted a complaint had been submitted to the chamber's ethics panel while talking to reporters.

"If you're talking about Rep. Staples, that's been turned over. We'll see what happens as it goes through the ethics committee and subcommittee and see what it is," Sexton said, without explaining further.

Like the Republican leadership, Stewart also told reporters that House rules prohibit him from discussing specifics about any possible investigation but responded that he's always taken allegations of possibly misconduct seriously.

"The harassment policy requires us to work quickly with respect to any sort of report and I can just tell you myself I will always comply with that policy," Stewart said.

Staples is one of the five Democratic member of the House Ethics Committee and it was unclear if he would continue to serve on the panel for the remainder of the session. As of Thursday, the House's website still listed the Democrat as a member.

Staples had previously declined to comment this week if he had signed a bipartisan letter submitted by the House Ethics Committee raising concerns about the leadership appointment of a separate Republican lawmaker facing sexual misconduct allegations.

Staples is also pushing legislation to legalize sports betting in Tennessee, which would require Republican support in the GOP-controlled General Assembly.