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Gov. Bill Haslam defends ties to lobbyists

8:38 PM, Jul 9, 2013   |    comments
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By Chas Sisk / The Tennessean

Gov. Bill Haslam defended his ties to political adviser Tom Ingram on Tuesday after published emails showed the lobbyist's efforts to influence senior officials in his administration.

Haslam and his chief of staff, Mark Cate, said Ingram and his firm had no special access to the governor or his advisers.

But emails obtained and released by WTVF-TV show Cate, Ingram and his partner discussing the firm's clients over weekends and holidays, as well as when Cate was traveling in the Bahamas. They also show Cate asking Ingram for help in getting a relative a job in Washington, D.C.

Haslam has said he paid Ingram out of his own pocket after taking office in 2011 to provide only "organizational advice," a claim that one email seems to cast some doubt on.

Haslam did not deny that Ingram had lobbied his staff while also being kept on retainer, but he said those efforts were not inappropriate.

"The question is, did anything happen there that shouldn't have happened?" Haslam said. "I don't think it has."

Cate also defended his relationship with Ingram.

"I get requests every day from people that know us and from people all across the state that I have no idea of," Cate said. "I feel like part of my job is to get them in contact with the right person. ... That happens four or five times everyday."

Ingram and Marcille Durham, the Ingram Group's president and the author of several of the messages, declined a request for an interview.

"As a 30 year old business this year, we are proud to have had strong relationships with five administrations, representing both parties," Ingram said through a spokeswoman. "We have always felt very fortunate to have these relationships and treated them with the greatest respect."

The emails deal with a range of topics, from for-profit education to the state lottery. Much of the correspondence deals with problems faced by companies on whose behalf Ingram and his firm, The Ingram Group, have registered to lobby.

In one set of emails, Durham and Ingram asked Cate to intervene in an enforcement action pending against HR Comp Employee Leasing LLC, a client facing punishment for offering staff leasing services without a license and then giving false testimony about it to investigators.

Durham tells Cate in a message sent shortly before 6 p.m. on March 28, 2012, that HR Comp is on the verge of laying off 27 people because the Department of Commerce and Insurance is considering an "action that is driving her (owner Andrea Ball) out of business."

Cate replies three hours later, at 9:06 p.m., that he has spoken with Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak and is "optimistic we can find a resolution."

The department eventually required owner Ball to pay a $10,000 fine and described her as "not of good moral character." It also issued a probationary license allowing it to provide staff leasing services, asking Ball and the firm to stay out of trouble for seven years.

Social meetings also

Haslam denied he'd been lobbied by Ingram.

"Tom has never talked to me about a piece of state business, period," he said. "If I'm paying Tom for advice, then we're talking about what I want to talk about in that time, not what his clients want to talk about."

The emails do not show any direct interactions between Haslam and Ingram, though they suggest Cate played a role in setting up meetings between the two.

In one email, sent Sept. 28, 2012, Cate confirms plans for a meeting to discuss tourism. The email lists the attendees as Ingram, Cate, the "gov," and two other people, identified only as "Colin" and "Lewis."

Ingram listed Gaylord Entertainment Co., led by chief executive Colin Reed, as one of his clients last year. Reed and Lewis Levine, a longtime political ally of Ingram, both sit on the Tennessee Tourism Committee, though neither is clearly identified in the email.

Dave Smith, the governor's spokesman, responded to questions about that meeting by saying that Haslam occasionally talked business with Ingram, but not in his capacity as a lobbyist.

Other emails show Ingram forwarding a request from the bankrupt International Storytelling Center for $500,000 to help hold onto its building in Jonesborough, providing research on the Tennessee Education Lottery and seeking aid on new regulations governing proprietary schools.

Cate segues from the request for money for the storytelling center to pointing out that Ingram and the governor will be having lunch in two days.

The emails also show that Durham sent Cate a message on Easter Sunday and received a reply less than two hours later. The access surprises even Ingram at one point.

"Wow, didn't mean to bother you on a weekend," Ingram writes after receiving a reply minutes after he sent a message on a Saturday morning. "Impressive response time."

Some of the correspondence was initiated by Haslam's aides. On Dec. 30, 2012, Cate wrote to ask Ingram to help his nephew make contacts in Washington.

Ingram replies, "We should get his resume to Todd Womack," a senior adviser to U.S. Sen. Bob Corker.

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