An ethics complaint filed against Gov. Bill Haslam was dismissed Wednesday by the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance because of a lack of evidence.
The committee, which voted along party lines, refused to further investigate whether the governor failed to properly divulge a campaign-related association he had with veteran political consultant Tom Ingram.
Former Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester lodged the complaint in August based on news reports asserting Haslam hadn’t disclosed the nature of his relationship with Ingram consistent with state campaign-finance reporting requirements.
Ingram, who was chief of staff and chief deputy to Gov. Lamar Alexander in the 1970s and ’80s, was on Haslam’s 2010 campaign payroll and helped with the governor’s transition. Ingram advised Haslam during the transition and Haslam then reportedly chose to continue their relationship.
Forrester alleged in his complaint that Ingram’s work for the governor was campaign-related and therefore Ingram’s pay and activities should have been reported with the state.
Forrester’s complaint referenced internal Haslam administration communications obtained by Nashville’s News Channel 5 suggesting Ingram performed campaign-related work while Haslam was paying him privately. In particular, an email from October 2012 showed Ingram and Haslam Chief of Staff Mark Cate discussing a “2014 planning retreat” at Loews Vanderbilt.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Haslam campaign attorney Joseph Woodruff said Ingram was at the meeting, but as a volunteer only, not paid staff. “The money was not campaign funds because the work was not campaign related,” Woodruff said.
Forrester was asked by the committee Wednesday to produce the emails (which can be found here), but he didn’t have them. He offered to present them at the Registry of Election Finance’s next regular meeting but Republican committee member Patricia Heim, who was appointed by Haslam, moved instead to immediately dismiss the complaint for lack of “hard evidence.”
Chairman Henry Fincher, the House Democratic Caucus appointee, agreed that without the emails Forrester’s case was weak. But Fincher suggested Forrester be afforded additional time because the committee hadn’t requested prior to the hearing that the emails be submitted.
“I understand there is a strong interest in resolution…getting it done, getting it finalized,” Fincher said. “But also realize there are news reports that discuss emails that are there, and I think the public interest is such that we (need to) offer a reasonable time to produce something we just asked him for today.”
House Republican Caucus Appointee Justin Pitt argued the complaint didn’t present sufficient grounds and called for a vote, which fell along partisan divisions, 3-1-1. Republicans Heim, Pitts and Darlene McNeece voted to dismiss the complaint. Fincher voted against and the other Democrat, Norma Lester, abstained.
Despite the dismissal, Forrester said he will consider refiling the complaint and include all the evidence from the beginning. “The consultant was on the campaign payroll, went off the campaign payroll and was paid personally. His activities I can’t imagine would have changed in any substantive way in terms of his advice to the governor,” Forrester said afterward.
“Gov. Bill Haslam is hiding the truth from Tennesseans, just like he’s hiding his tax returns,” he said.