Panel rejects complaint against Haslam

Friday, October 4, 2013, Vol. 37, No. 40

NASHVILLE (AP) - The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance on Wednesday dismissed a complaint from an ex-Democratic Party official who said Gov. Bill Haslam should have disclosed how much he paid an outside adviser.

The panel voted 3-1 on to throw out the complaint filed by former state Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester, who argued that the governor should be required to disclose how much he paid lobbyist and GOP operative Tom Ingram for advice.

"Everything that a consultant like Tom Ingram does is political and is campaign related," Forrester said after the hearing. "All of it is about ensuring from his perspective that the governor is re-elected."

Haslam's attorney, Joseph "Woody" Woodruff, disagreed.

"Not everything that's political is campaign related," Woodruff told reporters after the hearing. "What the governor did, by not using campaign funds to receive non-election related political advice, was exactly the right thing to do."

All three votes for dismissing the complaint came from commissioners selected by Republicans. The lone vote against rejecting the claim came from former Democratic state Rep. Henry Fincher, the panel's chairman.

Ingram was Haslam's top campaign adviser in his successful 2010 bid for governor. The governor in the years following his election paid Ingram out of his own pocket for political and policy advice. He placed Ingram on his re-election campaign payroll in July.

Ingram said in an affidavit filed with the panel that he was hired by the governor to "provide strategic consulting and their advice generally relating to organizational and structural issues at various state agencies."

While Ingram acknowledged attending a meeting at a Nashville hotel in October 2012 to discuss Haslam's re-election campaign plans, he said he was not compensated for the meeting.

Dick Williams, the chairman of Common Cause Tennessee, said it's difficult to separate when Ingram was working on the governor's behalf and when he was volunteering.

"If he's getting paid all along, what's the difference?" he said. "It's certainly a gray area."

Ingram has faced separate Ethics Commission proceedings over his failure to register as a lobbyist for a coal company seeking to mine on public lands. His lawyer has called the lack of registration papers an inadvertent oversight.

Ingram is also the chief media strategist for Pilot Flying J, the Haslam family-owned truck stop chain under federal investigation for defrauding its customers. The governor's brother, Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, is Pilot's CEO.