By Phil Williams
Chief Investigative Reporter
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - NewsChannel 5 investigates the perks of power -- or, in this case, the power company.
At the center of the investigation is a contract where the Nashville Electric Service signed on to help with Gaylord Opryland's big Christmas celebration. But as our investigation discovered, that deal turned out very well for the NES brass who signed the contract.
If you go to Nashville Electric Service, they'll expect you to pay your electric bill in full.
But for years, the folks at Gaylord Opryland have been getting a bit of a break on the bill for their big Country Christmas spectacular -- in exchange for tickets to the big shows and other perks that have gone to some of NES's top brass.
A September 2010 contract specifies that NES was to provide "free use of NES Equipment (i.e. transformers) during Gaylord Opryland's 'A Country Christmas.' Value: $56,000."
"Why don't they just pay what they owe like everybody else?" asked NES customer Ken Jakes.
Jakes runs a Nashville produce business, and his company also uses a lot of electricity. Which is why he was stunned when he came across a mention of the Gaylord deal while looking through some NES records.
"The executive staff, as you well know, they are not very underpaid -- they are some of the highest paid employees within Davidson County," Jakes added. "Why are they getting all these free perks?"
Our investigation discovered that, for years, Gaylord has counted on NES to supply free transformers to power the two million lights, as well as to cool its massive ICE! display.
Gaylord did pay for the electricity it used.
NES spokesman Tim Hill calls it a good deal for the Metro-owned utility.
"It was a good opportunity for us to partner with a good community corporation here that brings a lot of business here to Nashville," Hill said.
In return, in 2010 alone, a Gaylord summary shows that it gave NES:
"They were not given to senior management unless they asked for them," spokesman Tim Hill said.
"But senior management did use some of these tickets?" we asked.
"Yes," he acknowledged, "they did use some of them."
Among those taking advantage of the free hotel rooms and tickets was NES President Decosta Jenkins, who our investigation caught last year charging ratepayers for expensive dinners, alcohol, even hotel movies.
Jenkins, who's an avid golfer, also took at least one pass to play free at the lush Gaylord Springs golf course.
All of that was a result of a contract signed by Jenkins himself.
"Why should NES executives be personally benefiting from this contract?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Hill.
"They are not personally benefiting," he insisted.
"They are getting free room nights, they are getting free tickets," we noted.
"Anybody could have used the tickets, Phil. I could have used the tickets if I wanted to."
In fact, Hill said Jenkins took one of those expensive room certificates to use as a gift, executive VP Alan Bradley used one, while chief financial officer Teresa Broyles-Aplin -- the woman who oversees the contracts -- took at least two.
That despite an NES policy that says "the acceptance of gifts, hospitality, or entertainment in excess of $100 from customers... or other parties doing business with NES is prohibited.
"That is a personal benefit as a result of this contract," we noted.
"Well, yeah, it was a gift certificate that they gave us and they used them," Hill said.
Jakes questioned whether NES should be using such a back-door methods.
"If NES wants to buy some Rockette tickets and golf courses, let them pay Gaylord back -- what's this swapping back and forth?" he asked.
But both NES and Gaylord insist that this contract is a normal sort of sponsorship deal -- a deal that provides the electric company with a chance to get its name before the public in a positive way.
"This was an opportunity for us in a way to get advertising," Hill said. "Like I said, 80 percent of the benefit of this package was in advertising."
A presentation prepared by Gaylord showing how NES benefited shows its logo appeared in ads in The Tennessean and the Nashville Scene.
But it also counts ads in Memphis, in Knoxville, even in Birmingham -- all places far outside the NES service area.
"All this is," Jakes said, "is documentation to try to justify a swap deal that should have never happened to start with."
While the intentions may have been good, Jakes questions whether public agencies should be engaged in such trades.
"I'll furnish them a few potatoes and tomatoes and maybe throw in some onions to see if I can get a contract. But you and me both know that's not going to work," he added.
As for who really benefited, we don't know for sure. That's because the folks in charge at NES say they did not to keep any records about how these perks were disbursed.
We also don't know exactly how much the contract was worth.
But the NES spokesperson said that, as far as he knows, "nothing" changed -- except that Gaylord threw in a lot more perks.
As for Decosta Jenkins, he recently got a raise. His salary went from $315,000 a year. Now, it's $345,000.
CLARIFICATION: During the on-air story, I misspoke and said that NES paid for the electricity for the Country Christmas celebration. As the text above correctly noted, NES brass accepted the perks as a result of a contract to provide free transformer(s).