Ethics Panel effort in Nashville to drop civil penalties against a top GOP strategist today fail

NASHVILLE - Efforts by the state Ethics Commission members to drop possible civil penalties against a top Republican strategist fell through today when the panel failed to muster enough votes to act.

The panel voted 3-1 to drop proceedings against Tom Ingram, his colleague Marcille

Durham and their client, Hillsborough Resources, for failing to lobby for three years.

But they needed four votes to take action. The issue is expected to come back before the panel next month.

Dick Lodge, an attorney for Ingram, called the failure to register an "inadvertent mistake," telling commission members that Durham thought she'd registered on behalf of the firm and later "self reported" the problem and filed registrations for 2012 and 2013.

Initially unstated in the proceedings was that the self-reporting came after a reporter from Nashville television WTVF called Durham to find out why the high-powered firm, whose clients include Republican Gov. BIll Haslam, had failed to register.

Commissioner Keith Norman, who voted against dropping the cases, said he was uncomfortable acting because the commission's attorney was absent and he had additional questions about timelines on what took place.

"I think we make a bad precedent to move forward without understanding," Norman said, noting the commission has fined some for not registering.

Commission Chairman James Stranch argued "my goal is transparency and to get things on the record." Stranch said in most instances, the commission is prepared to forgive so long as those who violate agency rules either come forward through self reporting or don't ignore the agency when its staff discovers problems.

With the Ingram Group representing 22 clients, Stranch said, "I can see how something might fall through the cracks."

The Ingram Group was involved in meetings and discussions with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency over a possible coal-mining agreement with Hillsborough.

Durham has said the Ingram's Group work initially began with non-lobbying work but later involved lobbying. The Wildlife Agency's governing board is comprised of members appointed by the governor and state lawmakers.