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VOL. 38 | NO. 10 | Friday, March 07, 2014

Secrecy is sacrosanct in Haslam administration

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Phil Bredesen’s first act as governor was to issue an executive order requiring his cabinet officials, including himself, to disclose their yearly income.

Years later, Gov. Bredesen said, “I consider it an intrusion on my privacy, but one I feel required to do as a public official.” The executive order was a sign of Bredesen’s dedication to transparency.

“A hallmark of the Bredesen administration was transparency, from executive orders requiring personal disclosures by cabinet members to the Governor’s insistence on a steady stream of media availabilities during his eight years in office,” says Will Pinkston, a former aide to Bredesen.

“When mistakes were made, the governor was the first person to acknowledge them publicly and outline a plan for corrective action. He believed strongly in open government, and didn’t tolerate anything less from those around him.”

That first Bredesen executive order stood until Gov. Bill Haslam took office. On his first day in office, he issued an executive order wiping out what Bredesen had practiced in terms of open government for eight years.

It’s strange, I thought, that the governor would start off his term by being less transparent. Was it a sign of how his administration would operate?

Some say yes. “I think the Haslam administration doesn’t really care that much about transparency,” says Steve Cavendish, the news editor for the Nashville Scene and president of the Nashville chapter of Society of Professional Journalists.

“Open records requests are met with questions from Haslam’s staff about what angle the media is seeking, and recently a Haslam communications aide called a valid open records request ‘bullshit’ on both a voicemail and in person.”

One common public record request that has been denied is the governor’s schedule.

While the governor releases a schedule of his public events, everything else he does is private and is considered deliberative process privilege, which is an exception for a public records request.

When President Obama arrived in Nashville shortly after his State of the Union, Governor Haslam wasn’t there to greet the president.

Haslam was on an economic development meeting out of state. The governor’s staff would not tell reporters where he went or who he was meeting with, so his story could not be verified.

“Gov. Haslam claims that his schedule is privileged,” Cavendish says. “Which prevents anyone from knowing who he meets with, who has influence in his administration, and what kinds of incentive deals he is cutting with taxpayer money.”

I’m not saying he shouldn’t keep certain things secret, but it would be nice to know where the leader of our state was going, even more so when he blows off the President of the United States (not for the first time, either).

Another issue with transparency came when the relationship between Haslam and Tom Ingram was revealed. Ingram is a lobbyist and campaign consultant based in Nashville. A power player in Republican politics, he has run the campaigns of Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander. He also ran Haslam’s first gubernatorial campaign.

Ingram continued to consult for Haslam after he became governor. Once the campaign ended, Haslam stopped paying Ingram from his campaign account, one that is required to file public documents.

Instead, Gov. Haslam started to pay for Ingram out of his own pocket and would not disclose how much was paid to the registered lobbyist.

While Ingram was consulting for the Governor, companies were paying Ingram to lobby on their behalf.

As a citizen, it’s a red flag that our governor is paying one of the top lobbyists out his own pocket. Is Ingram giving advice to the governor that also helps one of his many clients?

“The governor has never given citizens an idea about his finances and his relationship with Tom Ingram, an advisor who is also a lobbyist with clients that pay Ingram to get results from the administration, is murky at best,” Cavendish adds.

And while secretly paying a lobbyist for advice is questionable, the Haslam administration has raised eyebrows with the way it awards outsourcing contracts.

Tennessee gave a contract to Bridgestone/Firestone for maintenance on the state’s car fleet. An investigation in 2013 by a news organization (Phil Williams at WTVF, Channel 5) claimed that the company was overcharging the state. As an example, the investigation found that a $1.74 headlight bulb cost the state (the taxpayers $12).

Oh, and the Commissioner of Finance & Administration at the time, Mark Emkes, was the CEO of Bridgestone/Firestone before he came to serve in the Haslam administration.

Many wondered if the company’s bid received special treatment.

The administration outsourced some of its transportation needs to Enterprise Rent-A-Car. The decision to begin outsourcing the car pool came after the General Services Department hired Kathleen Hansen, former Enterprise executive, to lead the department’s motor vehicle management division.

The Enterprise contract was awarded without a bidding process. Again, a contract was awarded to a top official’s former company.

And, again, Channel 5 investigated the issue in 2013. Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, a member of the Fiscal Review Committee, was one of the sources on both reports and who was concerned about the practices.

Does running the state like a business mean keeping everything a secret and awarding contracts to your staff’s former companies?

You start to lose respect for your government when too many things are done in secret, freedom of information requests are questioned and contracts are awarded to companies who have direct connections to top-tier administrators.

Haslam recently announced Transparent Tennessee, which overhauled the state’s website to have better access to public information.

“A state government that is accountable to Tennessee taxpayers is an important part of being customer-focused, efficient and effective,” Haslam noted.

Haslam is failing at being accountable to taxpayers. If you run the state like a business, is it the business partners or the taxpayers that are supposed to come out on top?

Right now it seems to be the business partners.

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