By Phil Williams
Chief Investigative Reporter
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The Nashville Electric Service has found itself at the center of a potential criminal investigation.
A spokesperson for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation confirmed Thursday that the agency is looking into questions first raised by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, along with some new questions. Those new questions involve allegations of potential bid-rigging on an NES contract.
Sources with knowledge of the investigation emphasized it is still very much in the preliminary stages.
Our NewsChannel 5 investigation first raised questions back in late April about a contract for NES to provide services to Gaylord Opryland's big Christmas spectacular.
While the hotel paid for the electricity, NES agreed to provide free transformers and manpower in exchange for a package that included free hotel rooms and free tickets. The most recent contract placed the value of the Gaylord deal at $56,000.
At the time, NES spokesperson Tim Hill admitted that some of the hotel stays and tickets went to NES President Decosta Jenkins and two other top officials.
Jenkins is the one who signed the contract with Gaylord.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Hill, "Why should NES executives be personally benefiting from this contract?"
"They are not personally benefiting," he insisted.
Still, we noted, "They are getting free room nights; they are getting free tickets."
"Anybody could have used the tickets, Phil," Hill answered. "I could have used the tickets if I wanted to."
That followed another NewsChannel 5 investigation that raised questions about other expenditures by NES brass.
TBI spokesperson Kristin Helm said the agency "opened a case on NES employees on May 16, 2012, at the request of District Attorney General Torry Johnson."
That was two weeks after our most recent NewsChannel 5 investigation.
"The initial request," Helm said, "was to investigate allegations of improper usage of company purchasing cards and/or NES employees obtaining unlawful benefits from an outside business."
Then, during the course of that investigation, the TBI came across new allegations -- allegations about whether someone inside NES had steered a lucrative contract to a certain company.
Specifically, Helm said, allegations surfaced "claiming NES medium- and high-voltage cable specifications had been tailored to fit a certain supplier without proper sole-source documentation and that possible 'bid-rigging' had occurred."
While ratepayers might not like what they see, several parties with knowledge of the TBI investigation stress that there is no proof right now that anyone inside NES has actually committed a crime.
Multiple sources have told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that state auditors have the lead on the investigation.
The TBI spokesperson said that agents are waiting on a report from those auditors before deciding how to proceed with the criminal investigation.
Still, she said, "It is still open and ongoing at this time."
NES spokesperson Laurie Parker said the utility has been cooperating with auditors "as they conduct an ongoing review of NES. As a part of that review, a TBI agent sat in on a few interviews."
Parker added that NES had not been told that there was a formal investigation.
"NES is waiting on the final report from the state," she said. "Once it is released, we will be able to respond to and address any of the issues identified in the report."
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