Nashville school shooting families accuse senator of using bill to get his way in records lawsuit

Apr 10, 2024, 2:00 PM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Family members representing the six people killed in a Nashville school shooting last year have filed an ethics complaint against a Tennessee state senator, arguing he is being self-serving by both suing for the release of the shooter’s writings and filing legislation to prevent third parties like them from intervening in public records lawsuits.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire is one of several people who filed open records requests last year seeking access to journals and other materials that were collected by Metro Nashville Police during their investigation. Police have said they will release the documents, but not until their investigation is closed, which is expected to be in a few months.

When their records request was denied last year, the senator and several others sued to force the release of the records. They argue there is not an open investigation because the shooter is dead, killed by police, and no one else is being prosecuted. But the case has been complicated and delayed by a dispute over who can be a party to the lawsuit.

A group of Covenant parents, the Covenant School and the Covenant Presbyterian Church that shares its building all sought to intervene in the case and were eventually granted that right by the court. The school and the church are seeking to ensure that no details are made public that could jeopardize the security of the building. The parents do not want any of the documents released, arguing that they could further traumatize their children and inspire copycats.

A hearing in the records case is scheduled to begin on Tuesday.

After losing the battle over who could intervene in court, the Chattanooga Republican sponsored a bill this year that states “intervention by a non-governmental third party in a public records lawsuit is not permitted.”

The ethics complaint filed on Tuesday accuses Gardenhire of “using his position as a State Senator to pass legislation in order to eliminate opposing parties.” The complaint says Gardenhire should have disclosed his involvement in the Covenant records lawsuit but didn’t.

Speaking for the bill in the State and Local Government Committee on March 12, Gardenhire told his fellow lawmakers, “Third party intervenors take away the government’s control of its own records.” However, he did not mention the records lawsuit. On March 18, the bill passed the Senate without debate or opposition. It is scheduled to be taken up by the House of Representatives on Thursday.

Meanwhile, a victim’s rights group sent an email to House members on Wednesday urging them to oppose the legislation.

“Today, sadly, in an environment where criminals are given more rights than victims, this is just another blow to victims if this bill passes, taking away what little power they may have after a victimization to keep some semblance of dignity in the middle of a horrible nightmare that changes their life forever,” wrote Verna Wyatt, co-founder of Tennessee Voices for Victims.

Gardenhire declined to comment through a spokesperson.

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Nashville school shooting families accuse senator of using bill to get his way in records lawsuit