Gov. Bill Haslam, who drew sharp criticism from his gubernatorial campaign opponents by releasing only limited information on the amount of his personal income, has decided to release no information whatsoever now that he is in office.
Those who criticized him on the campaign trail, however, were either subdued or expressed a change of heart when asked for comment on his more stalwart silence now.
In response to a 2009 request for copies of his federal income tax returns, Haslam responded with a six-year summary showing that he and his wife, Crissy, averaged about $4.75 million in annual income over the period, ending with tax year 2008.
The summary excluded income from Pilot Corp., now Pilot Flying J, with Haslam saying such a disclosure could inappropriately reveal income of family members and potentially impact the business. But the summary did show not only annual non-Pilot income, but also that the Haslams paid an average of just over $622,000 in federal taxes annually, about $100,000 annually in state taxes, and that they gave about $689,000 per year to charity.
In response to a recent request for similar information on his 2009 and 2010 income, the governor replied with a firm no, relayed by Alexia Poe, his communications director.
“We just don’t see the public good in ongoing stories about his income,” Poe said. “The sources of his income are known. He has complied with the law.
“What impact does the amount of his income have on his being governor?” she said.
Haslam declined to be interviewed on the subject, but sent the following comment via email:
“This is a topic that has been well reported and discussed over the past several years. As governor, I’ve done what I said I would do in the campaign. My holdings are in a blind trust — excluding Pilot stock, which everyone knows I own — and all required financial information will continue to be available to the public in annual disclosures.”
The annual disclosures required by state law mandate that an officeholder list his or her sources of income or investment worth $5,000 or more, but not the amount of the investment or income.
Shortly before taking office in January of this year, Haslam placed all his assets — except Pilot holdings and a real estate investment located outside Tennessee — into a “blind trust” with attorney Bo Campbell of the law firm of Waller Lansden Dortch and Davis as trustee.
No law requires disclosure of income tax returns, but Haslam’s refusal to do so during the gubernatorial campaign broke a long tradition of governors disclosing their returns voluntarily. Republican governors including Lamar Alexander and Don Sundquist did so, along with Democrats including Ned McWherter and Phil Bredesen.
Haslam’s limited disclosure during the campaign brought criticism from his Republican rivals as well as Mike McWherter, the Democratic nominee and son of the late Gov. Ned McWherter.
Bill Gibbons, then district attorney general in Memphis, was perhaps the most harsh. He labeled Haslam’s explanation for non-disclosure “baloney” and said Tennesseans were entitled to know how much Haslam made from Pilot. Gibbons likened Haslam’s stance to “an Olympic athlete declining to take a drug test.”
“Every time the state of Tennessee improves or widens a major highway in our state with a lot of commercial traffic on it, every time the state builds an interchange, Pilot Oil has an interest,” Gibbons said then. “Is that a big conflict or a small conflict?”
As governor, Haslam has appointed Gibbons, his former Republican rival, as commissioner of the Department of Safety.
“Frankly, I was wrong,” said Gibbons in an interview Friday, adding that he has “had some time to reflect and to rethink my position.”
“First of all, I don’t think it’s a matter in which citizens are really very interested. To the extent that it is of any interest whatsoever, I think people have an appreciation for the position the governor has taken.”
Former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, who finished second to Haslam in the GOP primary, called Haslam’s non-disclosure of income “a major and fundamental issue” that distinguished the candidates. Wamp had disclosed all his tax returns and also a personal net worth statement.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who finished third in the Republican primary, characterized Haslam during the campaign as hypocritical for touting his business experience while refusing to disclose personal income from his business interests.
Ramsey and Wamp, who is now running a Chattanooga-based consulting service, did not return messages left with their staff asking comment on Haslam’s revised position.
McWherter repeatedly criticized Haslam on the issue while campaigning, saying that “being open and transparent with the voters of Tennessee is a pact you make when you ask for their trust.”
In an interview last week, however, McWherter said “I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to be criticizing him. I’m not a candidate now.”
“I will say that, while the governor is obviously complying with the letter of the law, I think the law should be changed (to require more disclosure of officeholders’ personal income),” McWherter said.
State Democratic Chairman Chip Forrester said Haslam’s revised stance “is a further disappointment, but not a surprise given his past behavior.” He noted that Haslam, shortly after taking office, issued an executive order that revoked an order of his predecessor, Democrat Phil Bredesen, requiring cabinet-level officials to disclose more about their income than required by general state law.
“From the very beginning of his administration, the governor has consistently attempted to cloud and cover up sources of his income and how he is compensated financially — and his cabinet members,” said Forrester.
“This (disclosure of income amounts) was perfectly acceptable to two Democratic governors and two Republican governors. Why isn’t it acceptable to Gov. Haslam?” said Forrester. “Tennesseans deserve an understanding of the relationship a governor has with the companies he holds stock in and that may do business with the state of Tennessee.”
Dick Williams, a veteran advocate for more disclosure of officeholder finances as head of Common Cause in Tennessee, said the governor’s decision was “unfortunate” and counter to his belief that “the more disclosure, the better.”
“It’s unfortunate that both this and his first executive order are backtracking on what has been a tradition,” Williams said. “At the same time, it’s kind of hard to say he has to do more than the law requires … If he really is putting it in a blind trust and not fiddling around with it, the issue of conflict is at least ameliorated.”