No. 16: "The enemy of the State"

Why I'm so very sure I have the facts right about Rep. "Bedroom Bill" Sanderson

On Tuesday, while talking to someone about this story, I was asked why I was still writing it.

“He resigned before you even published your story. Why can’t you just let it go? What are you trying to accomplish here?” Mike Smith asked me. 

Mike Smith is the general manager of the Dyersburg State Gazette, probably the most prominent local paper in Kenton Republican state Rep. Bill Sanderson’s West Tennessee district. Smith, a former sports writer, is also the managing editor of the Dyersburg State Gazette; he writes both columns and hard news for the paper.

I called up Smith — who was generally quite pleasant during our conversation — because he wrote a column about Sanderson on July 28, a few days after my reporting resulted in the legislator’s resignation. (Oddly, Sanderson told me his resignation was effective immediately, but per the State Gazette, it’s effective Sept. 5, resulting in an extra month of pay.) I got my start at a local weekly newspaper in Eatonton, Ga., so I know personally how hard so many small town newspaper staff members work to cover news that otherwise would never be reported. This is why I was amazed to read Smith’s column, “Sanderson forced to defend reputation following resignation,” in which he runs an unedited statement from the legislator, filled with inaccuracies, that calls the media “the enemy of the State.”

As I mentioned in my last post, Sanderson has hired a Milan, Tenn., attorney named Frederick H. Agee to send out cease and desist letters to other news outlets writing about Sanderson’s history of trying to pick up much younger men on Grindr. Agee, a former clerk in the legislature, seems to be barely competent at his job, as the letters he has sent are also filled with inaccuracies. But his personal attacks on me have resulted in at least two stories getting killed, at NBC Out and at Memphis’s Local 24 station. A third outlet, Raw Story, deleted their piece after getting Agee’s email, although you can find it archived here. And Agee’s threats have meant few news outlets in Tennessee amended their original reporting on Sanderson’s resignation to note why he was actually resigning — because he was a family values Republican who had been caught cheating on his wife with men almost three decades younger. 

Sanderson’s son-in-law does indeed have cancer, which is terrible. (And I told him that.) But if Sanderson had really been planning for months to resign for business reasons, as he told me two weeks ago, would he have started making monthly payments of $924.22 to WellsFargo in April 2019 from his campaign account listed as an “auto expense”? Because Sanderson did confirm to me that he had purchased a new car with his account (which, inexplicably, continues to somehow be legal for legislators to do).

In short: A politician has resigned over a sex scandal, and his low-powered attorney (who does not have either a website or a LinkedIn page) has succeded in bullying large news outlets into not posting about his client’s scandal with an inaccurate email while the client calls the media “the enemy of the State.” Meanwhile, I, the author of the original story, have not gotten a cease and desist letter, and for good reason — everything I wrote is true, and both Sanderson and Agee know it.

Here’s the C&D email that Agee sent to Raw Story that resulted in the story being pulled:

We are respectfully requesting removal of the story published today by you on the Raw Story website regarding Bill Sanderson. This is an unsubstantiated claim against Mr. Sanderson by a blogger who solicits financial support on social media sites.

It is our understanding the blogger that made this allegation which dates back to almost a decade ago may not be a credentialed member of the media and is using unverified anonymous sources. We are also respectfully requesting that you cease and desist from publishing any future stories.

Lastly, my client has received a number of threats from the LGBTQ community from all over the Country that he and his family don't deserve. The threats have been so voluminous that he has had to temporarily shut down his social media sites for his White Squirrel Winery which is going to affect wine sales.

Thank you for the consideration.

And here’s the statement Sanderson gave to Smith (all sic):

As you must have heard, a Nashville freelance Democrat blogger has posted a story about me. Several years ago this person had lost her legislative press credentials and is not allowed press privileges in our legislative building. Also, her last 2 publishers fired her. She is unemployed, and via-twitter is asking for donations to repair her phone. She is trying to sell a story.

She is using an un-named source, using unverified information, has faceless pictures and a string of fake texts to smear my character. Because this is a blogger and not a legitimate reporter this is OK and protected by our 1st amendment as “freedom of speech”.

I absolutely deny what she is saying and consider it ridiculous, made up lies.

In the process of spreading her “fake news”, she has inflamed the LGBTQ community. This community is sending emails, phone calls and threats to my business and to my wife. Most of our social media accounts are now taken down.

It is a sad day when an unemployed democrat blogger using unverified, un-corroborated information can take out a hit piece on an elected official and the public considers it real news because it is in print. This is why, just tonight President Trump called the liberal media, “The enemy of the State”. I now see this very clear and I share his opinion and I hope you do as well.

I sincerely ask for your prayers.

And here are the facts: Sanderson took down his personal and campaign Facebook pages two days before my story ran, and I have him on tape saying that he did so. A week after the story ran, his personal Facebook page was back up. His personal Instagram is up and still public; so is that of his wife’s candle company. His son, who I did not name but whose Instagram account was linked to by other websites, also never made his account private. Sanderson did delete his Twitter account the day my story ran, but he rarely posted on it. And Sanderson’s winery Facebook page is back up now too. It also seems to only post about once a week, so it’s unclear how its disappearance could have possibly hurt Sanderson’s business. Oh, and you can still book the Sandersons’ “romantic winery loft suite” on Airbnb.

More facts: I am absolutely allowed “press privileges” in the Capitol and Cordell Hull, as is every member of the media. (They are public buildings, for one.) I don’t currently have a hard pass, which includes a cubicle and a parking spot, because I don’t live in Nashville (and there aren’t even any open cubicles to have if I wanted). You know who else doesn’t have a cubicle in the press room? Every single television reporter in Nashville.

Also: I was not fired from my past two jobs. As most of you know — and as I told Sanderson, and have on tape — the alt-weekly Metro Pulse in Knoxville was shut down in October 2014, and the entire staff was laid off. That happened in advance of Scripps selling the Knoxville News Sentinel to Journal Communication, which then sold its assets to Gannett, which is now selling all of its many news outlets to GateHouse. And that statewide news desert is a good part of why I started this newsletter. (Which is a newsletter, not a blog.) Also, I’m not unemployed, I’m a freelance journalist, and about a hundred of you have found my work worthy of your financial support, for which I’m eternally grateful. Lawyers don’t usually work for free, and neither should journalists. 

I asked Agee why he hadn’t sent me a cease and desist, and he replied, “Because there’s no reason to send one to you.” Agee said that because I was living with my mother and “unemployed and waiting tables” — literally the definition of being employed — and did not have “a Tennessee Association of the Press badge” — not a thing that even exists — it wasn’t worth his while to email me, unlike emailing other news outlets. (Never mind that my tiny little newsletter about Sanderson’s behavior has had almost 34,000 views as of this morning.) Despite the similarities in the C&D and the statement submitted to Smith, Agee said he did not write the latter. He refused to address the false claims in either statement — defamatory, because they are not true — and hung up on me. Twice. 

Finally: The Grindr messages and texts of which I have copies are not fake, and they are not from a decade ago. I have ones from 2013, and I have ones from 2016. But according to several people from West Tennessee, there’s been gossip about Sanderson sleeping with college-age men since the 1980s. I don’t have verification that he did cheat on his then-wife in the 1980s or 1990s, but longtime residents of the counties in his district have told me that his “Bedroom Bill” radio ads for his C.W. Sanderson furniture story were often derisively joked about.

Of course, joking about someone being closeted is not the same thing as that person actually attempting to hook up with men. But in December 2013, Sanderson was definitely trying his hardest to meet a 23-year-old man in the Dyersburg area. I reported on some of these Grindr and text messages in my first story, but since my credibility is under question, here’s more proof that these messages are not fake, and that’s there’s not someone who’s been pretending to be Sanderson catfishing young men in West Tennessee and Nashville for years.

A couple of days after Christmas 2013, two men went to a local Pizza Hut in Sanderson’s district. The representative was there, dining with his wife Marji. One of the men pointed him out to his friend, commenting that he was a legislator. Just over an hour later, shortly after the men, who were roommates, returned home, one had received a message on Grindr from “Brian.”

“Did I just see you at Pizza Hut?” asks “Brian.”

Through subsequent messages and pictures, all shared with his roommate at the time, the man realized that “Brian” was in fact state Rep. Bill Sanderson. Over the next several weeks, Sanderson attempted to meet up with this man. He said he wanted to “make out and cuddle” with him. He talked about being horny because he refuses to masturbate. He said the last time he was with a guy was in Nashville “three weeks earlier” with a “hard body 19 year old” student at Trevecca Nazarene University.

“He was hot as hell, great ass and wonderful dick. But it was all about him,” Sanderson wrote in a text message sent from his cell phone number. He then said he once picked up a guy at Tribe, the gay dance club in Nashville, who was “hot” but “a little too fem for me.” 

Sanderson also went into detail about the winery he was then planning to open. He talked about construction details. He talked about speaking at a Dyersburg Rotary Club meeting. And he very explicitly told the man what he wanted to do to him, over and over.

As the man slowly stopped texting back, Sanderson texted about going to the man’s workplace. 

“You are cute. I walked by u while u were talking to a lady,” Sanderson wrote. “You never looked my way. I like your hair. I think we would make good friends. … I’m not a stalker. … It’s cool I cane[sic] by, isn’t it?”

Although the man continued to text and talk to Sanderson over the next couple of weeks, he told his roommate that Sanderson’s intensity was bothering him, and he eventually stopped responding to the texts. But he’s not the only person Sanderson has met on Grindr who has had the legislator unexpectedly show up at his workplace in West Tennessee — I’ve talked to a second man who says this happened to him. But he says Sanderson has threatened his livelihood and isn’t ready to talk more about what happened — yet.

So why am I writing this? Because I don’t like being called a liar. Bill Sanderson used Grindr to get off, and I’ve seen the proof.

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