The board charged with enforcing Tennessee’s campaign finance laws Wednesday voted to dismiss a complaint filed against Gov. Bill Haslam for refusing to disclose how much he personally paid veteran politial operative Tom Ingram.
The complaint was one of two filed against the Republican governor by Chip Forrester, former chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party. The other was filed with the Tennessee Ethics Commission, which dismissed it in a closed-door meeting Sept. 11.
Both alleged that Haslam’s personal payments to Ingram involved political advice and were thus the equivalent of the governor making a personal contribution to his 2014 reelection campaign. State law permits unlimited self-financing of a campaign, but requires that the payments be reported to the Registry of Election Finance.
The Registry board voted 3-1 to dismiss the complaint. All three yes votes were from Republican members of the panel. The no vote came from Chairman Henry Fincher, a former Democratic state representative from Cookeville who said he would prefer to grant Forrester’s request that the vote be postponed so he could gather more information to present the panel. Norma Lester of Memphis, the only other Democratic member present, abstained.
The Tennessee Ethics Commission wound up in a stalemate Wednesday over whether to penalize veteran political operative Tom Ingram, one of his colleagues at the Ingram Group and a corporate client for their failure to file lobbyist registration papers for three years.
The stalemate effectively means no penalty for Ingram, Marcille Durham and Hillsborough Resources unless the commission decides to revisit the issue at some future date. Each could have faces civil penalties of up to $2,250 each – $750 for each year when lobbyist registration papers were not filed on time.
Ingram and Durham have acknowledged they failed to register as lobbyists for Hillsborough in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Durham, who is president of the Ingram Group, blamed an “inadvertent mistake” on her part, and registration for all three years has since been filed.
Ethics Commission Chairman James S. Stranch III made a motion to dismiss the case, contending that the goal of lobbyist registration statutes is transparency to the public about who is lobbying and that has been met by filing the required paperwork, albeit late. He also noted there had been no prior violations by any of the parties and that the commission has let other lobbyists avoid penalty for late filings.
The commission, he said, should “give the same grace to them that we’ve given to others.” But Stranch’s motion got only three votes while commission rules require for four votes for approval of any action.
The two boards that will rule on ethics complaints filed against Gov. Bill Haslam by a former state Democratic chairman currently have Republican majority membership because of unfilled vacancies — in one case, because Haslam has left a seat designated for a Democrat empty since March.
“I think the governor has put himself in a very uncomfortable spot, perception-wise,” said state Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis. “He is now going to be picking a judge who will be hearing his case.”
Former state Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester last week filed complaints with the Tennessee Ethics Commission and the Registry of Election Finance, contending that Haslam violated state law by not disclosing his personal payments to lobbyist and political operative Tom Ingram.
Forrester said that he has concerns about Haslam making an appointment of someone who will vote on whether the complaint is valid but still thinks Haslam should fill the empty slot.
Excerpts from a Chas Sisk interview with Tom Ingram:
What would Tom Ingram advise the governor to do about Tom Ingram?
…“I’m agonizing about that,” Ingram said. “I’m not sure what I should tell him.”
…“I’ve become a story where I shouldn’t be a story. I’ve become a distraction where I don’t want to be a distraction,” he said. “If I thought there was something I could do that would eliminate that distraction, I’d do it in a minute.”
Ingram’s many hats also have forced the governor to draw fine distinctions between the advice he receives from Ingram and the lobbying Ingram and his company do of the governor’s staff.
“It’s a fairly simple issue that happens … to other lobbyists and other clients, and the difference is it’s not usually noticed,” Ingram said. “I don’t think it’s just about me.
“For whatever reason, there’s curiosity about it.”
….“It’d be inaccurate to say that I’m not a lobbyist,” he said. “But it’d be inaccurate to say that’s all I am.”
Tom Ingram, who once upon a time was a Tennessean reporter, is profiled by The Tennessean, which says that today, aged 64, he is arguably “the most influential person in Tennessee politics who does not hold elected office.”
Ingram, of course, was political guru to three current statewide officeholders – U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, as well as Gov. Bill Haslam.
An excerpt from Chas Sisk’s article:
Now, with all three of the state’s highest offices occupied by Republicans whom he advised and coached, Ingram has returned to the government relations business he largely left behind in the 1990s. The move presents a revolving-door question for a man who probably has more access to public officials and the halls of power than anyone else in the state.
Ingram has rejoined the Nashville firm that bears his name, The Ingram Group, after being away from the business for years. Ingram has also joined with three other former Senate chiefs of staff to form a Washington affiliate called the First Group.
Ingram’s client list will continue to include Haslam, Corker and Alexander. It also will include some of Tennessee’s biggest companies — Gaylord Entertainment Co., Pilot Travel Centers LLC, Corrections Corporation of America — and national corporations such as AT&T Inc., Exxon Mobil Corp. and Anheuser-Busch.
Ingram says he will not personally lobby the Haslam administration or Tennessee’s senators, though his partners might. Common Cause state Chairman Dick Williams, who has known Ingram since the 1970s, says Ingram has always operated aboveboard.
There is some concern about the situation, though.
“I think it definitely carries an appearance of conflict for the public,” said Paul Blumenthal, a senior writer for the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington group that tracks lobbying. “He can really do a lot for a client.”
The Ingram Group and First Group can capitalize on those connections. But as he changes gears, Ingram says he can keep his past and present roles separate.
“I don’t mix the two,” he said. “We make sure everything is done in a legal way, and we try to do it ethically.”