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NC5 Investigates: Friends in High Places

Governor Accepts Undisclosed Gifts

(Story created: 7/22/02)

As the battle over Tennessee's budget raged, thousands of Tennesseans questioned whether Gov. Don Sundquist was listening.

But getting the governor's ear hasn't been a problem for some of the state's biggest businesses.

Our cameras were there as Sundquist and his Transportation Commissioner, Bruce Saltsman, golfed in the recent BellSouth Senior Pro-Am --guests of a multimillion-dollar state contractor, the Barge Waggoner engineering firm.

That same day on Capitol Hill, lawmakers were debating possible budget cuts.

But money wasn't an issue out on the golf course - where it normally costs $5,000 a person to play in the Pro-Am.

Barge Waggoner officials say tournament organizers waived the governor's entry fee, while the contractor picked up Saltsman's tab.

In fact, it's something they've done for years.

Still, it wasn't something the governor wanted to talk about.

"Can we talk to you about your golf trips?" investigative reporter Phil Williams asks the governor.

"No."

But if you think Sundquist and Saltsman just puttered around in a golf cart during the budget crisis, think again.

In January, the two jetted off in a brand-new $30 million private jet owned by East Tennessee trucking executive Scott Niswonger.

Their destination: the Caribbean.

There, they spent the Martin Luther King holiday weekend aboard Niswonger's yacht -- sailing along what one travel guide calls the "most magnificent coast on earth."

That came at a time when the Sundquist administration had shut down state parks back in Tennessee.

"You can't blame people for trying to buy influence with their gifts," says Phil Schoggen, of the government watchdog group Common Cause.

Schoggen says such freebies usually come at a price to taxpayers.

He adds, the question for the governor is:

"Would I be getting this gift if I weren't in this public office? If the answer is no, it's wrong."

But when we tried to ask the governor that question, he told us to ask his press secretary.

"You'll have to deal with Alexia -- there was no state money involved."

And he's partly right.

Still, under the Sundquist administration, Barge Waggoner has scored millions of tax dollars in highway contracts. Under TDOT's purchasing rules, the firm's golf buddy - the commissioner - decides who gets your money.

Likewise, Niswonger owns two trucking companies, LandAir and Forward Air, that are regulated by the state.

The Greeneville businessman has also spoken out against higher business taxes.

And at Greene County's sleepy little airport, Niswonger has pushed state officials to approve a multimillion-dollar plan to extend its runways, partly to accommodate his new jet.

Walter Johnson, who serves on the airport authority, says the expansion is expected to cost somewhere around $7 million.

"Not a small amount of money," Phil Williams notes.

"Not a small amount of money," Johnson replies. "It's a large amount of money for a country town."

Airport officials say safety is the biggest reason behind the push.

Airplanes on one end of the runway can't see planes that might be on the opposite end. The Federal Aviation Authority has cut off federal funding to the airport until the problem is fixed.

But Niswonger's new jet and its need for a longer runway have also been a major factor in the discussions.

Saltsman, who owns stock in Niswonger's companies, even personally headed a delegation to Greeneville for a meeting sponsored by LandAir on the runway expansion proposals. A photo of Niswonger's jet was placed prominently in front of the speaker's lectern.

Saltsman said in a written statement that he doesn't see any "conflict of interest in providing public funding to public airports."

But Johnson says Niswonger's politics have definitely been a factor.

"He knows the governor," Johnson notes.

"Has that helped?" Williams asks.

"I would say it's helped us, yes."

Sundquist's office say Niswonger is a longtime friend of the governor.

Still, since Sundquist was elected eight years ago, scattered news reports have noted that he has accepted flights on private jets from highway contractors, nursing home operators, even tobacco companies.

The administration's response to those stories was to stop keeping such information in public records that could be accessed by reporters.

That despite Sundquist's own executive order signed in his early days in office that was supposed to avoid "actual and potential conflicts of interest in the conduct of the State's business."

It required top Cabinet officials to disclose "all gifts of any kind valued at $100 or more ... from any individual or entity that seeks to influence legislation before the General Assembly or that does business or seeks to do business with the State of Tennessee."

As part of that ethics policy, Sundquist has filed voluminous disclosures of all sorts of gifts, including books, candy, even popcorn -- but not a single trip.

A statement released by Sundquist office says he is "more than willing to disclose the details of any official trips or gifts related to his role as governor.

"Being governor does not preclude a person from having friends or taking vacation, and he is under no obligation to disclose personal travel and/or gifts that have no relationship to, or bearing on, state government."

In fact, there's no evidence that Sundquist or his aides have done anything illegal.

State law prohibits companies that hire lobbyists from making certain gifts. So a lot of state contractors just stopped hiring lobbyists. That way they can legally influence the people who control your tax dollars.

In addition, state law makes it illegal for certain government officials to accept freebies from contractors who provide goods -- like computers or staplers. That law, however, doesn't apply to engineers and other contractors who provide services through multimillion-dollar contracts.

But Common Cause's Schoggen says Sundquist does have an obligation as someone entrusted with a public office.

"The least he could do is accept it and report it to the public, yes, and defend it."

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