Robert Morris, TVA’s vice president in charge of Valley Relations
Renee Hoyos, Tennessee Clean Water Network
By Ben Hall Investigative Reporter
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - A NewsChannel 5 investigation has raised questions about whether TVA uses ratepayer dollars to lobby lawmakers. TVA claims it does not lobby, which means the agency does not have to follow state lobbying laws.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates filed a Freedom of Information Request with TVA for credit card statements and receipts involving several employees at the agency. The request covered the first 10 months of 2009.
TVA provided copies of the monthly credit card statements for each of those employees, which included a one line explanation of the expense. The statements show TVA has taken lawmakers to expensive dinners and paid for golf.
Also at NewsChannel 5's request, the agency provided some receipts. CLICK HERE to view 20 of those receipts.
Some of the receipts contained handwritten notations. In many cases the TVA employees did not submit itemized credit card receipts for meals and alcohol. TVA does not require their employees to submit itemized credit card receipts.
For expenses exceeding $500, TVA has a policy that those high-cost expenses have to be "pre-approved" in writing. NewsChannel 5 requested copies of those "pre-approval" forms, but the TVA did not provide them to us.
After reviewing the expenditures, NewsChannel 5 decided to focus on the expense reports of TVA Valley Relations employee Paul Phelan.
Phelan, a former member of the Tennessee House of Representative, is one of seven Valley Relations employees responsible for meeting with elected officials. Phelan is responsible for communicating with elected officials in West Tennessee, and he spends time in Nashville when the legislature is in session.
Phelan is also the TVA employees who spent the most money on lawmakers.
CLICK HERE to view Phelan's monthly credit card statements.
In 2009, Phelan's used his TVA credit card to pay $893 for dinner involving several lawmakers at a Nashville steakhouse, $365 for golf at the Dyersburg Country Club in connection with Jimmy Naifeh's annual Coon Supper and $475 at a surprise birthday party for the former House speaker.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked TVA, "Are those appropriate expenses?"
"Yes, we've approved them all," responded TVA's vice president in charge of the Valley Relations, Robert Morris. "TVA supports the events we were involved with at those locations and the elected officials that were there for their business reasons as well as for our business reasons."
Morris oversees Paul Phelan and six others who entertain elected officials.
NewsChannel 5 looked into credit card statements for Amy Arnold and Waymon Pace, two other Valley Relations employees.
Arnold is responsible for overseeing TVA's relationships with Middle Tennessee public officials. CLICK HERE to see her credit card receipts.
Morris said his Valley Relations Department provides elected officials with information and answers questions, but they do not lobby.
"As federal employees, we're not allowed to lobby. We're not lobbyists, and so we don't fall under the rules and regulations the Tennessee state legislature has set up for lobbyists," Morris said.
Several environmental groups disagree with TVA's claim that it is not lobbying.
"Under most terms, we classify that as lobbying," said Dr. Stephen Smith, who runs the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "The fact that TVA can do it under quote, unquote Valley Relations, as opposed to being lobbyists makes no sense to me."
Renee Hoyos is a registered lobbyist with the Tennessee Clean Water Network.
"Every year we have to fill out a financial report saying how much we have spent towards entertaining lawmakers," Hoyos said.
State lobbying laws prevent her from taking just one or two lawmakers out to dinner. Her group must invite the entire general assembly.
"I couldn't invite just the locals," said Hoyos. "I had to invite everybody, so that meant extra printing, extra postage."
TVA officials said there is no double standard.
"If environmentalists or any company are constrained by the lobbying laws, I'm sorry, but we're not lobbying and we don't intend to lobby. We don't plan to lobby," Morris said.
On TVA's own Valley Relations web site, it boasts that Phelan has "increased understanding and support of TVA and its initiatives among many state legislators."
Some lawmakers question TVA's claim that it's not lobbying.
"It's pretty obvious what's going on. I think the public realizes it," said Sen. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville.
Burchett pushed a bill last year that required all landfills accepting coal ash to have liners.
Phelan's credit card receipts show he was in Nashville, attending committee hearings because of Burchett's bill.
"A lot of people attend those meetings just to learn what's going on," Morris said.
"In the eyes of reasonable people like yourself and myself and the ratepayers, they know what's going on," said Burchett.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked if he meant lobbying.
"Absolutely," replied Burchett.
Burchett said the bill that eventually passed was good, but not as strong as what he originally proposed.
Smith worries TVA is using money from ratepayers to influence lawmakers, but the public has no way to know what they're doing.
"We should have a very transparent understanding of what they are and are not lobbying for and against because they are using your and my money to do it," Smith said.
The state agency that oversees lobbyists told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that it's hard to prove someone is lobbying. The agency said it has not received a complaint about TVA, and that's how investigations get started.
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