NASHVILLE - Tennessee Ethics Commission members voted Monday to hold a hearing to see if legendary political operative Tom Ingram, along with the president of the firm that bears his name and a company they represent, violated state lobbying laws by failing to register.
Ingram and Marcille Durham, president of The Ingram Group, have acknowledged going two years without registering on behalf of one of their clients, Hillsborough Resources Ltd.
The Ingram Group, a lobbying and communications firm, is registered to lobby for any number of interests. Ingram and Durham say failure to register for Hillsborough for two years was an oversight.
Ingram serves as a political consultant to Gov. Bill Haslam as well as Republican U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee.
Commissioners debated what action to take. Durham had recently sent letters to the agency explaining what had happened as well as a $600 check to cover lobby registration fees.
That move came following news reports that Durham had participated in a meeting Hillsborough executives had with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency but wasn't registered.
Hillsborough is seeking to mine coal underneath the Catoosa Wildlife Management Area near Crossville, Tenn. The company has coal operations on adjoining land.
"I think we - and the state of Tennessee - are due an explanation of what happened here," said Ethics Commission Chairman James S. Stranch III.
The commission voted 4-0 to convene a "show cause hearing" where they can explain why they shouldn't be fined for the omission.
Commission member John Gregory Hardeman recused himself from voting, saying he knows Ingram and Durham.
The hearing is scheduled for the commission's next meeting.
Neither Ingram nor Durham attended the commission's meeting where members dealt with dozens of infractions ranging from late reports filed by public officials to late disclosures by lobbyists.
Durham said later by telephone that she and Ingram sought to register prior to the meeting but were unable to do so because Hillsborough had yet to register.
Ingram's activities these days include providing advice to Haslam. The relationship began when Ingram advised him on his 2010 successful race and later on his transition into office. Ingram once served as top deputy to Alexander when he was governor and later as his Senate chief of staff.
Haslam said Ingram "has never lobbied me, period." The governor said Ingram still advises him. The governor said he pays that out of his own pocket and doesn't charge taxpayers or his campaign for the work.
He won't say what he pays Ingram but noted Ingram gives "political advice to me that's not anything about state business." Ingram also advises him on "organizational and operational issues," Haslam said.
Ingram said last week he doesn't lobby the governor. In cases where he does have a client that is affected, Ingram said he points it out to Haslam.
Wendell Moore, a senior public policy adviser to Nashville law firm Baker Donelson and who lobbies at the state Capitol, has known Ingram for decades.
"His integrity is unquestioned and he's as honest as anybody I've ever known," said Moore, who once worked for U.S. Rep. Robin Beard, R-Tenn., and later for the administrations of President George H.W. Bush and Gov. Don Sundquist.