TVA Wines, Dines Elected Officials on Ratepayers' Dime
TVA executive Robert Morris
Dr. Stephen Smith with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy
TVA's Valley Relations Department
By Ben Hall Investigative Reporter
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- TVA credit card receipts from the first ten months of last year reveal how the agency spends money wining and dining elected officials.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the credit card expenditures of several TVA officials.
Our investigation discovered TVA spent tens of thousands dollars on things like expensive meals, golf and other entertainment for lawmakers and their staff.
But what may be most surprising is that TVA claims it does not lobby state legislatures. So, the agency does not have to follow lobbying rules.
Our investigation discovered that TVA credit cards bought ice cream for Kentucky lawmakers, golf for legislators in Alabama and an expensive dinner at a surprise birthday party for a Tennessee lawmaker.
"That's not discussing business," said TVA customer Brandy West. "That's ridiculous."
West tries to keep her utility bills low. Yet, year after year she sees them go up.
"You can see every year that goes by it's more, more, more," West said.
That's why she was so upset when we showed her that on the same month she struggled to pay her $500 electric bill, TVA spent nearly $600 on ice cream for Kentucky lawmakers.
"This is outrageous, just outrageous," West said.
But it's not unusual. TVA has seven employees who work in a department known as Valley Relations.
Credit card receipts show employees paid more than $700 for dinner at Memphis steakhouse for the Shelby County Congressional staff, a $1,200 tab at a Mississippi Country Club and $475 at a surprise birthday party for former Tennessee House of Representative Speaker Jimmy Naifeh.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked TVA executive Robert Morris, "How does TVA benefit to spend $475 at Naifeh's birthday party?"
Morris responded, "That particular event the governor was there, the lieutenant governor was there. It was a non-partisan event honoring the former speaker."
Robert Morris oversees TVA's Valley Relations Department. He said employees meet regularly with elected officials, but just to provide information.
"We're in the relationship business," Morris said. "We want to make sure we engender trust. Both they trust us and we trust them."
Building that trust took place on golf courses and in expensive restaurants throughout 2009.
When NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Morris why not just meet with elected officials in their offices, he responded that they do.
"The majority of the contacts we have with elected officials do not involve hospitality, the vast majority of our contacts," Morris said.
The credit card expenses raise a bigger question. TVA claims it does not lobby state legislatures. So, it's not obligated to register with state ethics commissions or report how it spends money.
"We are not lobbying. We are providing information," Morris said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "If you are out at dinner or playing golf with a lawmaker, aren't you trying to influence them in some way?"
Morris responded, "I say no. We try to be middle of the road, neutral on issues and just provide the facts."
Dr. Stephen Smith with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy questions the response.
"TVA is engaging in just about every aspect of lobbying there is except for calling it lobbying," Smith said.
His organization has hired a registered lobbyist to promote renewable energy in Tennessee. He was surprised when we showed him TVA's receipts for wining and dining lawmakers.
"I find it incredible that they would actually claim they're not lobbying with activity like this," Smith said.
Smith points to the ash spill as an example of how TVA has resisted oversight and regulation in the past.
"I believe that was clearly the agency fighting against the public interests for their own corporate interests," Smith said.
Ratepayers like Brandy West don't like seeing part of their utility bills pay for fancy dinners and golf.
"I would love to see Mr. TVA live for one month the way we do," West said.
TVA said it has stopped paying for golf. The agency said it spent $56,000 on hospitality for elected officials and staff in 2008, and about $35,000 thousand in 2009.