published Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

No favoritism for Ingram, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam says

Gov. Bill Haslam answers a question during a news conference in this file photo.
Gov. Bill Haslam answers a question during a news conference in this file photo.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam and his chief of staff, Mark Cate, said Tuesday that they show no favoritism toward Tom Ingram's lobbying clients, though Cate's emails indicate considerable friendly contact with Ingram and an associate.

Several of the emails obtained by WTVF-TV in Nashville involve HR Comp Employee Leasing, a Knox County firm that had problems with the state Department of Commerce and Insurance and retained The Ingram Group's services. The firm, owned and operated by Andrea Ball, of Powell, at one point was found to be operating without a state license and was ordered to pay a $10,000 penalty.

In one email, Ingram describes the company's situation as "a very troubling case."

In another, Marcille Durham, president of the Ingram Group, says Ball would like to meet with Cate about departmental action "driving her out of business," and Cate replies that he is "optimistic we can find a resolution."

Both Cate and Ball said in interviews Tuesday that they had never met.

Cate said, "I don't really see any point" in the TV report on his email since he was merely doing his job of dealing with people who have issues with one part of state government or another.

"It happens four or five times a day," he said. "I don't give any favoritism toward anybody we know as opposed to someone from a small town we don't know" while "trying to stay out of the middle" of a dispute between a department and an individual or group.

In the case of HR Comp, Cate said he responded in typical fashion -- contacting the department commissioner involved and asking that he or she "look into it."

Haslam has retained Ingram -- both through his 2010 campaign and, more recently, by personal payments -- to consult with him on political and governmental matters. The governor has repeatedly said Ingram has never lobbied him on behalf of his other clients and repeated that assertion Tuesday.

"If I'm paying him [Ingram] for his time, then we're talking about what I want to talk about" rather than another client, Haslam said.

The governor also said Cate had done nothing improper and was only doing his job of dealing with those who raise issues about government, something he said "happens 100 times a day."

Ball said the Ingram Group "has been very helpful in assisting us in dealing with the administration."

"There were heavy problems with the Department of Insurance where I needed a lobbyist to help me," she said. "Knowing nothing about politics, it helps having the Ingram Group on your side."

Ball and her husband, Chris, first got media attention last year when they appeared in a photograph with Haslam at a ceremonial signing of legislation at about the same time the consent order became public. Ball said the invitation to the ceremony came from a national association on employee leasing that pushed the bill, which she supported as an association member, and had nothing to do with the Ingram Group. She said she has met Haslam, but does not know him well.

Since then, Ball said, the company has obtained a full license after meeting all conditions imposed on it -- including payment of the full $10,000 fine -- and is becoming a successful business.

Ingram and Durham face an Aug. 1 hearing before the Tennessee Ethics Commission on whether they should be penalized for failing to register as lobbyists for Hillsborough Resources, which wants to mine coal on state-owned land. They say they failed to register for two years through "an inadvertent oversight."

The Ethics Commission's website shows that Ball's company has filed three reports on lobbyist compensation paid to the Ingram Group, each covering a six-month period. State law does not require a specific figure on how much is paid, only a general range.

HR Comp reported paying a total of between $45,000 and $95,000 for the entire 18-month period covered by the reports, the last filed Feb. 13. Ball said Ingram Group is currently doing no lobbying work for her company, though it remains on retainer for business and marketing consulting work at a fee that "may be around $5,000 a month" -- based on her offhand memory.

Haslam has declined to say how much he personally pays Ingram for consultations.

Contact Tom Humphrey at humphreyt@knoxnews.com or 615-242-7782.

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