The Tennessee Ethics Commission voted Monday to hold a hearing on whether veteran political operative Tom Ingram violated state lobbying laws along with one of his associates at The Ingram Group and one of their clients.
Ingram, political consultant to Gov. Bill Haslam as well as U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, and Marcille Durham, president of The Ingram Group, have acknowledged they failed to register as lobbyists for Hillsborough Resources Ltd., which wants to mine coal on Catoosa Wildlife Management Area near Crossville.
The Commission discussed Monday what action to take after receiving two letters and a check for $600 to cover two years of lobbyist registration fees for Ingram and Durham. The two also met with members of the agency staff last week.
“I think we – and the state of Tennessee – are due an explanation of what happened here,” said James S. Stranch III, chairman of the commission.
The commission voted 4-0 to hold a “show cause hearing,” which basically gives those suspected of violating the law an opportunity to explain why they should not be subject to a civil penalty. One member, John Gregory Hardeman, recused himself from the vote, saying he knew both Ingram and Durham.
The hearing will come at the commission’s next meeting, though no date for that session has yet been scheduled, said Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance.
In an initial letter to the Bureau, Durham said lobbyist registration should have been filed for three years – 2011, 2012 and 2013 – but was not because of “an inadvertent oversight.” In the second letter, labeled as an “amendment,” she said that – though Hillsborough retained the Ingram Group in 2011 – “lobbying activities” did not begin until 2012.
Rawlins said that, in discussions with Ingram and Durham, the two told him their work was confined to “consulting” in 2011.
Haslam, meanwhile, told reporters Monday that Ingram “has never lobbied me on anything,” though he has acted as a consultant to the governor starting in his 2010 campaign. Currently, Haslam pays Ingram for consulting out of his own pocket and the governor refuses to disclose the amount paid. Ingram is also acting as a public relations consultant to attorneys for Pilot Flying J while the company deals with an FBI investigation. The Haslam family owns a majority of the company and the governor’s brother, Jimmy Haslam, is CEO.
“He has never lobbied me, period,” the governor said, responding to questions. Instead, he said Ingram provides “political advice to me that’s not anything about state business” and consulting on “organizational and operational issues.”
Ingram said in an interview last week that he never lobbies the governor, but if a subject comes up where he has another clients with an interest, he always makes that clear to Haslam.
Durham said in an interview Monday that she and/or Ingram plan to attend the commission meeting to explain the mistake. Generally, she said an original mistake in failing to register for Hillsborough through the commission’s online system had led to a repeat failure when time came for renewal. The problem has been corrected, she said.
Rawlins said that, in talking with him and a commission staffer, Ingram and Durham indicated Hillsborough had “some consternation” about registering as the employer of lobbyists. The firm itself has had no contact with the commission, he said.
That situation leaves Ingram and Durham somewhat “in a box,” Rawlins said, because laws require that a lobbyist’s registration must be accompanied by registration of their client as employer of a lobbyist. Ergo, Ingram and Durham are not yet officially registered even though they have submitted their forms and a payment for their fees.
Don Goldberg, spokesman for Hillsborough, said Monday that the firm “just learned about the lobbying issue recently” and is in the course of reviewing the situation. The firm’s officials will be in contact with the Ethics Commission “and intend to be in full compliance” with the law, Goldberg said.
The “show cause” hearing will be for Ingram, Durham and Hillsborough and will be on years 2011, 2012 and 2013. Each faces a maximum penalty of $750 each per year.
In an emailed statement, The Ingram Group said:
“We appreciate the Ethics Commission considering the matter. We are happy to appear and explain that this was an inadvertent error and the first time it has happened in our nearly 30 years of business. Additionally, we have taken steps to enhance our internal procedures that we believe will help to avoid any similar errors in the future.”