NASHVILLE - Political advice isn't necessarily campaign consulting, according to the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance, which on Wednesday tossed out a complaint over Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's secret payments to lobbyist and campaign consultant Tom Ingram.
The panel, which oversees campaign financial disclosures, voted 3-1 to boot the complaint filed by former state Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester, who said Haslam should have disclosed the payments. The three yes votes came from Republican members.
Haslam, a multi-millionaire, paid Ingram, whose firm also lobbies the Haslam administration and state lawmakers on behalf of a variety of clients, out of his own pocket.
The Registry's Democratic chairman, Henry Fincher, voted no while Democrat Norma Lester abstained. The panel has one vacancy, a Democratic slot.
Forrester said after the meeting that he may re-file the complaint. Registry members and Haslam's attorney raised questions about Forrester's use of news accounts that detailed Ingram's attending a 2012 meeting of Haslam officials at a local hotel to discuss the upcoming 2014 campaign. Why weren't the actual emails provided, they asked.
Forrester said he can get the emails and disputed assertions that political advice is not always campaign advice.
"Everything that a consultant like Tom Ingram does is political and is campaign related," Forrester told reporters after the hearing. "All of it is about ensuring from his perspective that the governor is re-elected."
Haslam's attorney, Joseph "Woody" Woodruff, took issue with Forrester's position both during the hearing and afterward with reporters.
"Not everything that's political is campaign related," Woodruff said. "What the governor did, by not using campaign funds to receive nonelection-related political advice, was exactly the right thing to do."
Ingram did not attend the show-cause hearing. He said in an affidavit filed with the registry that he was hired by the governor to "provide strategic consulting and their advice generally relating to organizational and structural issues at various state agencies."
A top adviser to Haslam's 2010 campaign, Ingram stated that although he attended the hours-long campaign-related meeting at a Nashville hotel, "I was not compensated for attending."
Haslam has previously said Ingram advised him largely on organizational and structural issues. But the governor has acknowledged some of it was political. Still, Haslam has defended not telling the public about any of it because he didn't think taxpayers should have to pay for the operational advice and the political counseling didn't rise to the level of using his campaign account, which is disclosed.
Nonetheless, after extensive news coverage, Haslam in July said he would put Ingram on the campaign payroll and will disclosure future payments.
Dick Williams, chairman of Common Cause Tennessee, later said it's tough to figure out just what Ingram was advising when Haslam was paying him and when Ingram was volunteering.
"If he's getting paid all along, what's the difference?" Williams said. "It's certainly a gray area."
Williams said he thinks there should be legislation to address the situation.
Earlier this summer, the state Ethics Commission refused to take action against Ingram and an associate over their failure to register as lobbyists for a coal company that sought to mine coal beneath state land. The Ingram Group firm, which has registered on behalf of most of its clients, has called that an oversight.
Ingram is also advising Pilot Flying J, the Haslam family-owned truck stop chain, which is now under federal investigation for defrauding truck firms in a fuel rebate program. Haslam's brother, Jimmy Haslam, is the company's CEO.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.