Despite recent setbacks regarding litigation and his own critical remarks about his job, Chip Saltsman, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann's chief of staff, said Tuesday that his indefinite, unpaid leave of absence is "all part of the plan."
Saltsman has been on leave since June 8, but Fleischmann's office never publicly announced the news.
Interviewed Tuesday, Saltsman, who earned more than $156,000 last year as Fleischmann's top aide, said he left the government payroll to supervise "all aspects of Chuck's campaign" on a volunteer basis until at least Aug. 2, when Fleischmann faces three challengers in a hotly contested 3rd Congressional District Republican primary.
Saltsman described the "long-planned leave of absence" as "a pretty common thing for chiefs of staff to do," but his remarks to a national media outlet two days before he left were anything but ordinary.
On June 6, the website Politico published a story quoting Saltsman as saying, "I didn't want to take the job as [Fleischmann's] chief of staff. I said 'No' the first three times he asked me."
Saltsman acknowledged the comments Tuesday.
"I've loved working for Chuck, but you know, that was not my first choice," Saltsman said. "That's not what I was going to do the first time around."
Fleischmann's office did not make the first-term congressman available for an interview Tuesday, but in the June 6 article, Politico quoted him describing Saltsman as "an outstanding individual."
Not long before Saltsman's leave of absence became public, the Chattanooga Times Free Press published excerpts of a deposition Saltsman gave in a lawsuit brought against him and Fleischmann by Mark Winslow, a former aide to Fleischmann's top 2010 opponent, Hamilton County's Robin Smith.
A 2010 attack ad mentioned in the lawsuit alleged that Smith, a former state GOP chairwoman, paid "lavish bonuses" to a top aide at a time the party was in debt. That claim appeared to be debunked when Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney said he was the one who paid Winslow as part of a severance agreement.
In his own deposition, Fleischmann testified he had no literal grounds to make the "lavish bonuses" charge against Smith.
In his deposition:
• Saltsman said he approved an attack ad featuring a "created" computer image featuring Tennessee's state seal superimposed over a nongovernment document.
• Saltsman used anonymously sourced, confidential documents left in his garage for Fleischmann ads without authenticating them.
• Saltsman testified that he -- not Fleischmann -- ultimately approved campaign ads that included the disclaimer: "I'm Chuck Fleischmann, and I approved this message."
On Tuesday, a source close to Fleischmann had trouble balancing Saltsman's testimony with his belief that the congressman's chief of staff is the man to win Fleischmann a second term.
"Did Chip run an honest  campaign? I don't know. I can't weigh in on that," Fleischmann campaign finance chairman Tom Decosimo said. "I know what I've read in the newspaper.
"But obviously there are two very real opponents [GOP challengers Scottie Mayfield and Weston Wamp] here," Decosimo continued, "and now Chip's doing what he does best."
Saltsman, whose boss described the lawsuit as "frivolous" and "politically motivated" at a 3rd District debate Saturday, said his unpaid leave has nothing to do with the depositions or the Politico article. He said he would approach Fleischmann's re-election effort "pretty much the same way" as 2010, minus a consulting fee.
The national campaign manager for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's 2008 presidential run, Saltsman said he "might go back" as Fleischmann's chief of staff after the August election. Saltsman and other aides said Jim Hippe, Fleischmann's legislative director and office counsel, will assume chief of staff duties for now.
Ron Bhalla is Fleischmann's other Republican challenger, while Mary Headrick and Bill Taylor are competing for the Democratic nomination. Independent Matthew Denniston also is in the race.
Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at email@example.com or 423-757-6610.