Ethics Case Against Haslam Adviser Ingram On Hold
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The state board that regulates lobbyists in Tennessee deferred final action Thursday on whether to fine lobbyist and political consultant Tom Ingram, his partner and a client they both represented.
The Tennessee Ethics Commission held a show-cause hearing, which representatives from the Ingram Group and Hillsborough Resources attended.
It follows a NewsChannel 5 investigation which revealed that Ingram's firm represented Hillsborough Resources for three years, but failed to register with the state as required.
Hillsborough Resources owns a coal company that wants to mine coal under a state-owned wildlife area.
Tom Ingram ran Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's winning campaign and was on the governor's private payroll as a political consultant for the last two years.
Attorney Dick Lodge represented the Ingram Group at the hearing and claimed the firm did not actually engage in lobbying when it worked for Hillsborough Resources in 2011.
He told the Ethics Commission that Ingram's firm should not be fined because it registered for the years 2012 and 2013 -- and admitted to the commission that it had made a mistake.
"The Ingram Group has responded to its mistake, which was self reported, and might never have been discovered otherwise," Lodge said.
In fact, it was a NewsChannel 5 Investigation that first brought the mistake to Ingram's attention.
Ingram told NewsChannel 5 Investigates in May that the firm thought it had registered.
He said, when NewsChannel 5 Investigates told him the firm was not registered, his firm notified the state and paid lobbyist registration fees for two years.
In a letter to the board, the Ingram Group claimed the work it did for Hillsborough Resources in 2011 was not actually lobbying.
"Thus, there should be no question that registration for 2011 was not required," Lodge said.
But not all board members agreed.
Ingram's own records show the firm's president set up a meeting with the head of the Department of Environment and Conservation, made materials for the meeting, and attended the meeting with representatives from the coal company -- but did not participate.
"This is one of the times I wish our lawyer was here," said commission Chair James Stranch.
Some board members worried that it would set a precedent if it ruled the firm had not lobbied in 2011.
"Using one's influence to set up the meeting, to attend the meeting and to participate in the meeting, even if it's passive, it seems to me that's close," Stranch said.
In an unusual move, the Ethics Commission allowed Ingram's representatives to change their stance.
They suspended the hearing to allow the company to fill out paperwork and register as lobbying for Hillsborough Resources in 2011.
But even after all that, the board could not agree that the case should be dropped.
"We're stuck," Lodge said after the meeting. "No lawyer wants his client's matter drawn out to another day."
Three board members voted to drop the matter, but it takes four votes. One board member recused himself from the vote. One member voted to wait until the next meeting to make a decision.
At the next meeting, the Ethics Commission's lawyer will be there, and members will discuss the issue again.