NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam and lobbyist and political consultant Tom Ingram have maintained for months that none of Ingram's advice to Haslam, which the governor paid for secretly out of his own pocket, involved campaign consulting for his 2014 re-election bid.
Rather, the two have said Ingram was personally retained by Haslam, elected in 2010, for professional consultation work related to the administration of state government.
But a review of Ingram's 17 state lobbyist registrations with the Tennessee Ethics Commission turns up three instances in the past 22 months in which Ingram's relationship with Haslam is identified as either "campaign consultant to the governor" or "consultant to campaign for governor."
Filings involved were Ingram's 2012 and 2013 registrations for Xerox Corp. and a 2013 filing for McGuiness Group.
Ingram disclosed the relationship under a provision requiring lobbyists to disclose what "business arrangements" they have with government officials.
In his other registrations, Ingram described his relationship with the governor in terms such as "consultant," "general consultant," "independent consultant" and sometimes as "political consultant."
Ingram said in an interview Friday that "there's absolutely nothing inconsistent with what the governor and I have said about our relationship. ... Now, what the specific language on the disclosure is, I don't have a clue."
He said he didn't file the disclosures himself, noting they're "filed on a pro forma basis," indicating it was done by someone else at The Ingram Group, the public affairs and strategic consulting firm that bears his name.
Registry records indicate that an Ingram Group staffer emailed the registrations.
"I'm just telling you there's nothing inconsistent about anything we have said about the relationship," Ingram said. "And you can dig around all you want to."
Former Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester said he plans to look at the registrations before he refiles a complaint against Haslam, a Republican, later this month with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.
"I intend to review that and certainly give those [registrations] consideration" as he gathers documents to restate his case, which registry members dismissed this month, Forrester said.
"If it walks like a duck and it talks like a duck it is a duck. This is hair-splitting by the governor," said Forrester, who alleges Haslam broke the law by paying Ingram personally instead of from his campaign account, which is publicly disclosed.
The relationship between Haslam and Ingram, a widely respected campaign operative, came under scrutiny in news accounts last spring revealed Ingram was doing consulting work for Haslam but was not being paid from the governor's campaign account. At the same time, Ingram and co-workers were lobbying the administration.
Haslam said in June he paid Ingram himself because "it wasn't fair for the state to pay Tom. And he wasn't doing political work to where it should be campaign[-related]. He was literally helping me as I thought through organizational issues inside state government."
The governor has said Ingram didn't lobby him on behalf of clients at the same time he was providing advice. That's not what he was paying Ingram for, Haslam has said.
After extensive news coverage, Haslam announced he was putting Ingram on the campaign payroll because the 2014 election was approaching.
Forrester later filed complaints with Registry of Election Finance and the Tennessee Ethics Commission. The Ethics Commission dismissed the complaint in September.
Registry members followed suit this month in a 3-1 vote. Several members scolded Forrester for relying on news accounts instead of emails on a key point.
The emails showed a top Haslam staffer in 2012 invited Ingram to a 2014 campaign meeting. But registry members indicated even if Forrester presents them, that likely won't change the outcome.
In an affidavit presented to the registry, Ingram said he was not compensated for the campaign-related meeting.
Ingram said Friday he had properly disclosed his business arrangement with Haslam all along as required and none of his paid work involved the 2014 campaign.
As for the three registrations, he said "whatever it said, we said. But whatever we did, we did."
Dick Williams, chairman of the watchdog group Tennessee Common Cause, said, "I think they ought to be questioned about that [registrations]. Not to make excuses for [Ingram], but maybe he says he was a little sloppy."
Still, Williams said much of the arrangement falls into a "gray area." Legislation is needed to make things clearer, he said.
Haslam spokesman David Smith said "it's not appropriate for me to characterize Tom's filings. But the governor's been perfectly clear about their relationship."
And, he said, that's been backed up by two agencies' decisions.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...
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