NASHVILLE — Efforts by several state Ethics Commission members to drop possible civil penalties against top Republican strategist Tom Ingram stalled Thursday when the panel failed to muster enough votes to act.
Commissioner members voted 3-1 to drop proceedings against Ingram, his colleague Marcille Durham and their client, Hillsborough Resources, for failing to register to lobby for two years.
But they needed four votes to take action. The issue is expected to come back before the panel next month.
The case has drawn statewide attention. Ingram is a veteran GOP operative who has serves as top political adviser to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and many other Republicans. Ingram and Durham did not attend the proceeding.
During the meeting, Ingram’s attorney, Dick Lodge, called the failure of the Ingram Group principals to register an “inadvertent mistake. He noted Ingram and Durham later “self-reported” the problem and filed registrations for 2012 and 2013 this spring when Durham became aware of the omission.
Left unstated initially 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, had failed to register on behalf of Hillsborough, which is seeking state approval to mine coal underneath the Catoosa Wildlife Management Area near Crossville.
Lodge did urge commissioners to ignore extensive news coverage of the flap, characterizing it as “finger wagging.” He said the law prevents a penalty in cases of self-reporting.
Hillsborough officials hired the Ingram Group as they sought an agreement to let the company mine coal beneath the state-owned Catoosa Wildlife Management Area on the Cumberland Plateau. Environmentalists oppose the move.
Ingram, who oversaw Haslam’s 2010 campaign, has been serving Haslam as a consultant with the governor paying him out of his own pocket. Haslam has refused to say how much he was paying him and says Ingram never lobbies him on behalf of his clients.
But Ingram and his public affairs firm has lobbied top administration officials on behalf of several clients. Moreover, Ingram is consultant to the governor’s brother, Pilot Travel Centers CEO and Cleveland Browns’ owner Jimmy Haslam.
The privately held company, in which the governor holds an unspecified stake, has been embroiled in a federal investigation into fuel rebates for trucking firms. Meanwhile, one of Pilot’s board members is Mike Loya, CEO of Hillsborough’s parent company.
The Ingram Group’s work began as “public affairs consultants for Hillsborough in 2011 in which Durham put together meetings with the top Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officials.
But Lodge said no actual lobbying began until 2012. Durham has said she thought she had registered to lobby.
Commissioner Keith Norman, who later 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.
He later noted while Lodge kept saying the Ingram Group “self-reported” its error, the “trigger” was Durham being contacted by a reporter about the lack of registration.
“I think we make a bad precedent to move forward without understanding,” Norman said, noting the commission has fined some lobbyists in the past 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.
He also raised questions about the Ingram Group’s position that it had not lobbied on behalf of Hillsborough in 2011 because of Durham had put together a meeting with Hillsborough and TWRA officials.
With the Ingram Group registered to lobby for 22 groups or businesses, Stranch said, “I can see how something might fall through the cracks.”
Stranch took the unusual step of negotiating with Lodge during the proceeding, saying he would feel more comfortable with dismissing the matter if the Ingram Group back-registered to lobby in 2011 too.
Lodge took up the offer immediately and he, an Ingram Group attorney and Hillsborough officials marched down the hall to register as the commission went on to other business.
That wasn’t enough to satisfy Norman.
The commission has six members but has a vacancy. Meanwhile, John Gregory Hardeman, recused himself due to an unstated conflict.
Observing the proceedings was Dick Williams, president Tennessee Common Cause, a watchdog group.
Williams said he thinks the Ethics Commission attorney, who missed the meeting because he was hospitalized, will tell the panel at its next meeting that under state law and commission rules say “they can’t issue a civil penalty unless they’ve notified them and they don’t respond within five days.”
Lodge had pointed that out and Williams said “he’s right. And the public would say there is a difference between finding it out on your own and reading it in the press. There is a difference. But legally, I don’t think there is. Now, I’m subject to the attorneys’ statement on that … [but] I think that’s the case whether people want it or not.”
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.