NewsChannel 5 Investigates reviewed the most recent campaign finance reports of the gubernatorial candidates. We identified contributors who worked for coal companies or for companies associated with the coal industry.more>>
By Ben Hall Investigative Reporter
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Big coal companies are putting big money into political races in Tennessee. The contributions come as the state legislature debates bills affecting the Tennessee's water and mountains.
A NewsChannel 5 investigation revealed the powerful leader of the state senate, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who is also running for governor, gets far more from coal interests than anyone else. One former senator claims Ramsey asked him to drop a bill that would have banned most types of mountain top mining.
Former republican Sen. Raymond Finney is not what you would call an environmentalist.
"I'm not a tree hugger," Finney said near his home in Maryville, Tennessee. "I don't believe global warming is manmade and all that stuff."
Three years ago, Finney sponsored a bill designed to stop most mountain top coal mining. It would have banned surface mining above 2,000 feet.
A coal company had just bought the mineral rights to a state wildlife area and threatened to mine coal by blowing the tops off mountains.
"There are some things worth fighting for and this just happens to be one of them," Finney said.
Finney lost that battle.
"I guess that was my naivete – that I didn't think this through," Finney said.
The former senator said he was naive about the power of the coal industry. In recent years, coal companies have pushed a series of water quality bills in the legislature that environmentalists claim open the door for more mining.
Tennessee's coal industry is relatively small. Coal mines employ fewer than 400 people, but NewsChannel 5 Investigates went through campaign finance reports and found their influence was big.
Coal related companies – including some from out of state – give hundreds of thousands of dollars to Tennessee politicians.
Since 2009, people with an interest in coal contributed more than $300,000 to people running for office in Tennessee. We found that more than $195,000 went to the powerful leader of the state senate, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey or his political action committee.
Ramsey is now running for governor.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Ramsey if he was the coal industry's candidate?
"No, I'm the pro-business candidate. No, I'm pro-jobs candidate. That's exactly what I am," Ramsey responded.
Ramsey said there was enough regulation on mining right now.
"It's one of the toughest industries in the world to get permitted. We need to leave it at that," he said.
Coal companies appear to like his message.
United Coal and those with ownership in the company gave more than $40,000 in the last year to Ramsey's campaign. Virginia-based coal company Alpha Natural Resources contributed more than $18,000.
"Do people that think like I do give me contributions? Absolutely. That's the way it works, and I'm not receiving money from those that disagree with me," Ramsey said.
A prominent member of Ramsey's finance team also has ties to the coal industry. James Powell's construction company builds, among other things, coal preparation plants. Powell has said that he got his start when the coal industry boomed in Virginia.
Powell's employees and their relatives have contributed more than $80,000 to Ramsey or his PAC.
"He's supportive of me because he believes in me as a person, believes in me as a businessman and believes that I want to grow jobs in the state of Tennessee. That's the reason," Ramsey said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "But would he also profit if coal mining increased in Tennessee?"
"Well I hope so," Ramsey said. "That's what it's for. Profit is a good word in my opinion."
No other candidate for governor has benefited as much as Ramsey from contributions from those with an interest in coal mining. We found he received more than three times the amount of all the other candidates combined.
Which brings us back to former Sen. Finney. He claims Ramsey pressured him to drop his fight to end mountain top mining.
Finney said the first mention about dropping the bill came through Republican caucus leader Diane Black.
"She said, 'Well, Ron doesn't want you to run that bill' and I was surprised at that," Finney said.
Finney went on to say Sen. Black told him Lt. Gov. Ramsey could do him a lot of good.
Later, Finney said Ramsey came to his office.
"How unusual is it for the Lt. Governor to come into someone's office and say don't go for this bill?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.
"In the four years I was there, that happened one time with the instance I'm talking about here – with the coal bill," Finney responded.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Lt. Gov. Ramsey, "Would it be inappropriate for you as lieutenant governor to go into someone's office, another senator, and say ‘Withdraw this bill?'"
Ramsey responded, "That would probably be inappropriate. I've never done that."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates said, "He claims you did do that."
Ramsey said, "Well he's wrong. I went to him and said, 'Look Raymond, you don't have the votes on the committee to do this. There's no need to try and run this bill because you don't have the votes to do it.'"
Finney's bill passed in committee, but it was never brought to the Senate floor because it failed in the House. He does not know if contributions had anything to do with it.
He said when he ran for re-election, he asked fellow Republican Ron Ramsey for help, but Ramsey didn't give it.
"I did what I thought was honorable what I thought was necessary. I was proud of what I did, and I was defeated, barely," said Finney.
Sen. Diane Black said she does not remember the details of her conversation with former Sen. Finney. She said her job as caucus leader is to give lawmakers advice about whether their bill will pass, and she said she has never asked a senator to withdraw a bill.
Finney now works at his church in Maryville and plans to stay out of politics.