The local spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Transportation apologized Monday for praising County Commission Chairman Larry Henry, whose son is representing the rights of property owners in cases against TDOT.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press published an article Sunday detailing how Henry recommended his son's law firm to three East Brainerd Road property owners.
Henry's son, Gary, is representing the owners in a dispute with TDOT over how much their property is worth. TDOT wants to acquire rights of way for a road-widening project.
TDOT spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn sent Henry an email Monday praising his response to the story on a local radio station. The email harshly criticized the newspaper for running the story, saying, "In my opinion, there are a lot more pressing issues going on in Chattanooga."
When a reporter contacted her about the email Monday afternoon, Flynn said she should not have sent it to Henry.
"I apologize for doing that," she said. "It was wrong on my part."
There is nothing in the state or county's ethics codes that prohibit Larry Henry's involvement in the cases, but critics have questioned whether it's a conflict of interest.
Henry spoke about the issue during the Hamilton County Pachyderm Club meeting Monday.
"The only thing I regret is that I didn't do more for those people," he told club members, adding later, "These people asked me [for advice], and I pointed them in the right direction."
But three state advocacy groups - Common Cause Tennessee, the League of Women Voters of Tennessee and Tennessee Citizen Action - said Henry's involvement in the cases raises ethical questions. In one case where his son is an attorney, Henry was present when a TDOT negotiator discussed the property value with the owner.
In her email, Flynn called the newspaper article "all hat no cattle" and congratulated Henry on how he defended his actions on a local radio station.
"I heard you on WGOW this morning and you acquitted yourself most excellently," Flynn said. Later she wrote, "Personally, I am just glad it's over."
Condemnation cases typically drive up the state's costs for acquiring rights of way from property owners; Flynn said TDOT's goal is to pay a fair price for the land. When negotiations fail, the state exercises its right of eminent domain, known as a condemnation proceeding. More often than not, the state ends up paying more than its initial offer, according to William James, senior counsel with the local state Attorney General's office. The AG's office handles condemnation cases.
When asked why she would praise Henry for doing something contrary to TDOT's interests, Flynn said, "I don't know that he was portrayed in the best light. I don't think he was intentionally trying to do anything to undermine TDOT. We've worked well with Commissioner Henry in the past."
Henry received a standing ovation from his fellow Republicans as he told the Hamilton County Pachyderm Club on Monday he did nothing wrong by suggesting that his constituents hire his son's firm. In all three cases, Gary Henry is listed as the property owners' attorney.
Larry Henry did not dispute the facts of the newspaper story. His son also was present at the Pachyderm meeting. Henry said his actions were fundamental to how he operates as a commissioner.
"The day that Larry Henry cannot give instruction and advice and help not only to his constituents but his friends will be the day that Larry Henry will quit being in politics because I'm going to be there for my people," he said.
While his fellow Republicans showed their support, others weren't so sure that Henry's actions were completely aboveboard.
Paul Smith, chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, criticized Henry's involvement.
"That borders on being unethical, and we would expect him to heed the ethical standards that everybody sets for elected officials," Smith said.
Richard Wilson, a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said the ethical questions are "survivable" as long as more information doesn't come to light. He was not surprised that the Pachyderm Club rallied behind the commission chairman.
He said Henry's defense - that he was a politician helping constituents - is undermined by his admission that he recommended his son's firm.
"Larry Henry would like this to appear to be a disinterested act of a public official helping his constituents, but in this instance, the help he gives leads to a financial benefit to a member of his family," he said. "It may be on the up and up, but it also raises questions in people's minds."
Contact staff writer Dan Whisenhunt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6481. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DWhisenhunt.