NASHVILLE -- Accusations flew between Republican gubernatorial hopefuls Zach Wamp and Bill Haslam on Tuesday, with U.S. Rep. Wamp, R-Tenn., on the defensive about an economic development group he created while Knoxville Mayor Haslam sought to bat down questions about his family-owned company's ties to legal gambling operations in other states.

Rep. Wamp for his part defended the Tennessee Valley Corridor, an economic development group whose work he touts in campaign ads as he claims partial credit for decisions by Volkswagen and Wacker Chemical to locate in Chattanooga and Cleveland, Tenn., respectively.

The Tennessee Valley Corridor was characterized in a Nashville City Paper article Tuesday as a "cash cow" for a public relations firm, principals of which have close ties to the Chattanooga congressman and his gubernatorial campaign.

The article reported that AkinsCrisp Public Strategies, which is being paid $9,000 a month by the Wamp campaign, was paid $2 million over a 10-year period by the Tennessee Valley Corridor for setting up the organization's annual summits and related activities.

"That (criticism) is either sour grapes or smear politics or both coming together and really should be completely discounted, because it's just kind of gutter politics," Rep. Wamp said after an appearance before Nashville's First Tuesday organization of Nashville-area GOP activists.

The article quoted unnamed business participants in the summits, who ante up as much as $40,000 to participate in them. They questioned whether the fees are worth it, but the article says they are reluctant to complain publicly because the congressman serves on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, which oversees their federal funding.

Rep. Wamp defended AkinsCrisp chairman Darrell Akins, noting he and other firm members also have worked for other politicians including U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. He sought to pin blame for the article on the Haslam campaign, saying, "obviously somewhere along the way, he (Akins) made Tom Ingram mad."

Mr. Ingram, a consultant to the Haslam campaign and former Alexander chief of staff, denied being the source of the article. He called the assertions "bizarre."

But Mr. Ingram noted that "there are questions raised by the story that need to be answered. Sixty to 85 perent management fees in most circumstances would be considered exorbitant. And when the chain (of events) is you start with organizations or entities that are in line for appropriations ... I think that's a sequence of events that someone will want to undertand better."

While it was not mentioned in the City Paper article, Rep. Wamp earlier acknowledged that his son, Weston Wamp, works for AkinsCrisp.

"I needed my son engaged there and learning their business as a brand-new college graduate," the congressman said, noting it is "totally legitimate under the law."

He called the Tennessee Valley Corridor "squeaky clean" and noted it discloses its financial dealings. He sought to compare to that to Mr. Haslam's unwillingess to disclose the extent of his holdings in his family's Pilot Corp. and that company's various dealings.

Rep. Wamp charged that Pilot Corp., through its Pilot Travel Centers subsidiary, "operates casinos and other casino games in at least three states" and has ties to "international gaming interests."

He urged Mr. Haslam to fully disclose his interests.

Haslam campaign spokesman David Smith charged that Rep. Wamp "has his facts wrong again, and is either intentionally trying to mislead voters or hasn't done his homework."

He said Mr. Haslam "has made it abundantly clear he opposes legalizing casino gambling in Tennessee, and Pilot does not own or operate casinos in any state."

Asked by the Times Free Press whether Pilot has video poker, slot machines or similar gaming devices in its travel centers/truck stops in Nevada, Wyoming and Louisiana, Mr. Smith said, "the question and allegation is whether Pilot owns and operates casinos and other casino games, which isn't true."

Pilot, Mr. Smith said, "doesn't operate any gaming machines. It leases space to companies that use the space for gaming. The congressman also refers to Montana where Pilot doesn't even do that; it sells diesel fuel to a guy who operates the truck stops."

The Louisiana Gaming Control Board's website lists William E. Haslam in connection with "video poker" licenses for two Pilot Travel Centers. It lists his ownership interest at 37.36 percent.

Mr. Smith said Louisiana law "requires the lessor to obtain a gaming license, but Pilot does not own or run any gaming operations."

Rep. Wamp said he would oppose casino-style gaming operations in Tennessee. Casinos are banned under the state constitution.

Read the original City Paper story by following this link.

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