Gov. Bill Haslam and his chief of staff, Mark Cate, said Tuesday they show no favoritism toward Tom Ingram’s lobbying clients, though Cate’s emails indicate considerable friendly contact with Ingram and an associate.
Several of the emails obtained by WTVF-TV involved HR Comp Employee Leasing, a Knox County firm that had problems with the state Department of Insurance and retained The Ingram Group’s lobbying and consultant services. The firm, owned and operated by Andrea Ball of Powell, at one point was found to be operating without a state license and agreed to pay $10,000 in a consent order.
In one email, Ingram describes the company’s situation as “a very troubling case.” In another, Marcille Durham, president of the Ingram Group, says Andrea Ball would like to meet with him about departmental action “driving her out of business” and Cate replies that he is “optimistic we can find a resolution.”
Both Cate and Ball said in interviews Tuesday that they had never met.
Cate said “I don’t really see any point” in the TV report on his email since he was merely doing his job of dealing with people who have issues with one part of state government or another.
“It happens four or five times a day,” he said. “I don’t give any favoritism toward anybody we know as opposed to someone from a small town we don’t know” while “trying to stay out of the middle” of a dispute between a department and an individual or group.
In the case of HR Comp, Cate said he responded in typical fashion – contacting the department commissioner involved and asking that he or she “look into it.” Asked if such a request from the governor’s chief of staff would not prompt a commissioner to special treatment, he replied in the negative.
“A lot of times what people will do is they’ll call somebody in their local community who knows somebody in the office and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you call Claude Ramsey or call Mark Cate or email them.’ And so that happens… very frequently and really, that’s been one of the hallmarks of the governor back when he was mayor and now that he is governor.
“He’s always wanted us to have an open door policy and to deal with anybody who has an issue,” Cate said.
Haslam has retained Ingram – both through his 2010 campaign and, more recently, by payment through undisclosed personal funds – to consult with him on political and governmental matters. The governor has repeatedly said Ingram has never lobbied him on behalf of his other clients and repeated that assertion today.
“If I’m paying him (Ingram) for his time, then we’re talking about what I want to talk about” rather than another client, Haslam said.
The governor also said Cate had done nothing improper and was only doing his job of dealing with those who raise issues about government, something he said “happens 100 times a day.”
Ball said the Ingram Group “has been very helpful in assisting us in dealing with the administration.”
“There were heavy problems with the Department of Insurance where I needed a lobbyist to help me,” she said. “Knowing nothing about politics, it helps having the Ingram Group on your side.
Ball was particularly unhappy with the phrase “of bad moral character” in the consent order with the department, which she said was exploited unfairly by competitors. Ball said legislation that passed with the support of the National Association of Professional Employer Organizations – she is a member – will halt such things in the future while putting new, strict controls on the staff leasing business.
Ball and her husband, Chris, first got media attention last year when they appeared in a photograph with Haslam at a ceremonial signing of that bill at about the same time the consent order became public. Ball said the invitation to the ceremony came from the association and had nothing to do with the Ingram Group. She said she has met Haslam, but does not know him well.
Since then, Ball said, the company has obtained a full license after meeting all conditions imposed on it – including payment of the full $10,000 fine – and is becoming a successful business.
Ingram and Durham face an Aug. 1 hearing before the Tennessee Ethics Commission on whether they should be penalized for failing to register as lobbyist for the Hillsborough Resources, a company that wants to mine coal on state-owned land. They say they failed to register for two years through “an inadvertent oversight.”
The Ethics Commission’s website show Ball’s company has filed three reports on lobbyist compensation paid to the Ingram Group, each covering a six-month period. State law does not require a specific figure on how much is paid to lobbyists; only a general range.
HR Comp reported paying a total of between $45,000 and $95,000 for the entire 18-month period covered by the reports, the last filed Feb. 13 this year. Ball said Ingram Group is currently doing no lobbying work for her company, though it remains on retainer for business and marketing consulting work at a fee that “may be around $5,000 a month” – based on her offhand memory.
Haslam has declined to say how much he personally pays Ingram for consultations.