Sam Thomas "Tommy" Burnett (August 1, 1942 – September 17, 2009) was a Tennessee politician who was Majority Leader of the Tennessee House of Representatives and who served two prison sentences for separate federal convictions.
Burnett was born and raised in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. As a student at Goodlettsville High School he served as class president and was chosen “most likely to succeed." He attended Cumberland College and received a law degree from the University of Tennessee. While in law school he served as a lay minister for a Church of Christ congregation in Jamestown, Tennessee, where following graduation he established a law practice and began his political career.
A Democrat, Burnett was first elected to the state legislature at age 28 in 1970, representing a district that included Fentress, Overton and Morgan counties on the Cumberland Plateau. After taking office in 1971 Burnett became a protégé of Ned McWherter, who was then House Speaker. He soon assumed the role of Floor leader for the Democrats during the governorship of Ray Blanton and later became House Majority Leader during the governorships of Lamar Alexander and Ned McWherter.
As a politician Burnett was known for his charm, oratorical skill, persuasiveness, sense of humor, ability to quickly analyze issues, and effectiveness at working across party lines to achieve results. Some state political observers thought he could become governor. He is given much of the credit for winning passage of major education legislation proposed by Governor Alexander, nursing home reforms, the Tennessee Sentencing Commission Act, and tort reform. Among the successful legislation that he sponsored were a law mandating use of seatbelts and a controversial initiative that limited the nighttime hours of work for teenage students.
In 1983 he was convicted in federal court for the misdemeanor of willfully failing to file federal income tax returns, and served ten months in prison. While in a prison camp at Maxwell Air Force Base he was re-elected to the Tennessee House, defeating two opponents in the primary and winning the November 1984 general election with 60 percent of the vote.
Burnett's 20-year career as a state legislator came to an end in 1991 after he was convicted as a result of the FBI's Operation Rocky Top investigation into corruption in the Tennessee General Assembly. In August 1990 he was convicted on nine counts and sentenced to second federal prison term after receiving a multi-count indictment for his involvement in an illegal bingo gambling operation. One of his convictions was for defrauding a man he had met in prison by inducing him to invest $48,000 in the gambling operation. After his conviction, he was forced to end his campaign for re-election to an 11th term in the fall of 1990, and went to work as a car dealer during the appeals process.
He received a five-year prison sentence for his Operation Rocky Top conviction, and served 16 months before being released to a halfway house in August 1992. After six months in the halfway house, he began a new career as a talk radio commentator on Teddy Bart’s Roundtable program in Nashville. As a convicted felon, he lost his law license and could not seek public office again. However, he succeeded in getting the law license restored in 2003 and became a lobbyist in the General Assembly in his final years, although health problems limited his physical activity.
His career also included stints as a cattle rancher, oil prospector, chicken farmer, and seller of fireworks. He is credited with helping to establish the Highway 127 Corridor Sale, which has been called "the world's largest flea market."
Burnett died September 17, 2009, in a hospital in Nashville. His funeral was held September 20, 2009, in the Fentress County community of Banner Springs. His remains were transported in a mule-drawn carriage to Springs Chapel Cemetery for burial.
- Kerr, Gail (2009-09-17). "Tommy Burnett, former TN legislator, dies at 67". The Tennessean. Retrieved 18 September 2009.[dead link]
- Tom Humphrey, Mr. Sam Thomas Burnett, crafty, colorful, convicted former state lawmaker, dies, Knoxville News Sentinel, web-posted September 18, 2009
- Ken Whitehouse, State bids farewell to legendary legislator Tommy Burnett, NashvillePost.com, September 17, 2009
- Erik Schelzig, Burnett won race from prison cell; Former Tennessee House leader dies at 67, Associated Press, September 18, 2009
- Mike Pigott, Veteran Tennessee political observer Mike Pigott remembers the colorful Tommy Burnett, Nashville Scene, September 23, 2009
- Gail Kerr, Services for former state Rep. Tommy Burnett are Sunday, The Tennessean, September 19, 2009
- Friends, Family Remember Tommy Burnett, News Channel 5, September 20, 2009
- Tommy Burnett Dies At Age 67, Fentress Courier, September 23, 2009