Tom Ingram, veteran consultant to both Gov. Bill Haslam and Pilot Flying J, faces a potential civil penalty for failing for three years to register as required by law as a lobbyist for a company that wants to mine coal on state-owned land near Crossville.
Ingram said Wednesday the failure to register was “inadvertent on Marcelle’s part,” a reference to Marcelle Durham, president of The Ingram Group, the public relations and lobbying firm that Ingram founded and operates.
Durham has written a letter to the state Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance acknowleding the “inadvertent oversight” and declaring she will submit belated lobbyist registrations for three years of lobbying for Hillsborough Resources Inc., which is negotiating with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to mine for coal on Catoosa Wildlife Management Area. (For copy of the letter, click on this link: Durham_Letter.pdf
In an interview, Ingram said is is careful to balance his lobbying work with his role as a consultant to Gov. Bill Haslam and to Pilot Flying J and does not see any conflicts of interest. (Note: WTVF story on Ingram lobbying HERE.)
His latest role, as Ingram described it, is “managing communications on the investigation” by the FBI into allegations that Pilot Flying J cheated some trucking companies in billings for diesel fuel. Ingram said he is actually retained in that role by Neal and Harwell, the law firm hired by Pilot Flying J.
But Ingram’s multiple roles have at least created some curious situations. Durham is registered to lobby the Legislature for Pilot, for example, while Ingram is not – though he has registered to lobby for the company in Washington. Ingram said the difference is that he does not lobby in Nashville for Pilot, leaving that to Durham and two other lobbyists Pilot has registered in Nashville.
For another example, Ingram has registered in Nashville as lobbyist for K12 Inc. and seven other clients though saying he in general does “very little lobbying at the state level.” He is also retained by Gov. Haslam as a consultant, paid in an undisclosed amount by the governor personally.
One of Haslam’s main legislative efforts this year was passage of a bill that puts new restrictions on the operation of for-profit virtual schools. K12 is the only operator of a for-profit virtual school in Tennessee.
Ingram said he and Durham had one recent meeting on behalf of K12 with Mark Cate, the governor’s chief of staff, and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman “mostly exploring where they were on issues and where we were on issues.”
“I don’t see any conflict as long as everybody knows what my role is,” said Ingram.
During the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Ingram was paid by Haslam’s campaign as a political consultant and Ingram said he expects that to resume as the governor cranks up his 2014 re-election campaign. For now, he and Haslam decline to disclose the amount of the governor’s personal payments to him.
“Between the campaigns, he (the governor) calls me occasional on governance matters,” said Ingram, though most of his advice is political. “I haven’t lobbied the governor. If I bring up an issue with him, I’m very clear to let him know I have an interest in it…. I don’t expect it to influence him at all – certainly not in my favor.”
David Smith, spokesman for Haslam, responded to a question on Ingram’s roles and his relationship with the governor with this email:
“With experience as a deputy governor and as a chief of staff in Washington, Tom has unique experience that can be helpful to the governor. Governor Haslam hears from a number of people with different perspectives on issues, and he weighs all of it before making a decision.”
The Tennessee Ethics Commission will discuss whether a civil penalty should be assessed against Ingram, Durham or Hillsborough Resources at a meeting Monday, said Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Bureau.
The maximum penalty for failing to register as a lobbyist if $750 per year, Rawlins said. Penalties could be assessed against each person who failed to register and against the company that hired them, he said, and each year would be a separate penalty.
The commission could also simply decide to let the matter drop without penalty since The Ingram Group has acknowledged its failure and belatedly submitted registration forms for the past three years to the Bureau, along with lobbyist registration fees.
Ingram’s role in the effort to convince TWRA to allow coal mining at Catoosa, in exchange for a payment, was initially reported by WTVF-TV in Nashville. Steve Patrick, a TWRA assistant director, told WTVF that Durham has been the principle contact in discussions with the agency, though he knows Ingram is leader of the group.
Durham did not return a reporter’s phone calls on Wednesday. Rawlins said Durham had left him with the impression she would belatedly register only for herself, not necessarily Ingram, for Hillsborough Resources. Ingram said that his role in efforts on the client’s behalf has been peripheral, but insofar as registration goes, “If there’s any doubt, I do it.”
State Democratic Chairman Roy Herron said the situation reminded him of Jesus Christ sayin in the “Sermon on the Mount” that “no man can serve two masters.”
“The governor has a responsibility to make sure that… everybody working for the governor is serving one master and that’s the people of Tennessee and not trying to serve a second master which is a special interest.”