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NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Friends in High Places

Friend Follows Governor Out of Debt

(Story created: 11/25/02)

There are new details about how John Stamps -- a man at the center of our Friends in High Places investigation -- may have profited off his relationship with the governor.

This comes in the middle of an FBI- TBI investigation of alleged insider contracts.

Now, NewsChannel 5 investigative reporter Phil Williams discovered Sundquist's election took Stamps from rags to riches.

"He's a good person," Sundquist recently told reporters. "He's a good friend, and he's not the kind of person that would profit off things like that."

Stamps is the owner of Workforce Strategists, the Chattanooga company where FBI and TBI agents recently seized records. Among the questions that investigators are asking is: how did the company land a no-bid contract before it ever opened for business?

That contract would eventually be worth almost $2 million.

Stamps, an insurance agent from Monteagle, , is a longtime friend and business partner of the governor. Stamps was there as Don Sundquist was elected, first, president of the National Young Republicans in the 70s, to Congress in the 80s, then governor in the 90s.

But as Sundquist took office in January 1995, our NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered, Stamps was flat-out broke. Within days, he would file for complete bankruptcy, claiming $1.1 million in debt, with just $45,000 in annual income.

Yet, the friend of the governor was about to make a quick comeback as a Capitol Hill lobbyist.

"This isn't a guy who had had from my experience up on Capitol Hill, a lot of time spent working the legislative hallways," says WWTN talk radio host Steve Gill.

Gill got to know Stamps during some Republican campaigns two decades ago. Gill says Stamps primarily had one thing to sell.

"It had to be a relationship aspect that he was bringing to the table, and clearly the relationship with the governor was something that apparently he thought he could capitalize on."

Among the clients who have paid for Stamps' access: some of the state's biggest businesses: Blue Cross, Blue Shield... Lockheed Martin... highway contractor WMB... among others.

Stamps first associated with the Akins & Tombras lobbying firm in Knoxville, later forming his own company, Privatization Strategies.

In addition, Gov. Sundquist appointed Stamps' wife, Suzann, to a board that reviews unemployment claims. The board meets two days a month. Last year, she brought home $18,000 for those two days a month.

But the lobbying business was so lucrative that, within months, the bankrupt Stamps was handing out political contributions... including $1,000 to Sundquist's re-election campaign.

On Capitol Hill, it's not that unusual for folks with inside connections to suddenly start selling their services as lobbyists. Like it or not, there's nothing illegal about that.

But Stamps took it one step further, turning those relationships into government contracts.

Stamps had a hand in a project where another friend of the governor, Al Ganier, got an exclusive contract to connect Tennessee schools to the Internet. Their company, Education Networks of America, would use that experience to land more than $180 million in state contracts.

Another Stamps company, Comprehensive Community Care, was an outpatient mental health facility financed by one of his lobbying clients with money from TennCare.

Among his partners: Sundquist administration official Alex Fischer.

But when Stamps filed a disclosure statement required of all lobbyists, he answered a question about his business arrangements with administration officials, by saying he had "none."

That raises all sorts of questions, according to Phil Schoggen, an activist with the government watchdog group Common Cause.

"Stamps is a partner of Fischer, Fischer is a member of the administration," Schoggen observes.

"To not report that Stamps has this relationship with a member of the administration seems to be to be in direct violation of at least the spirit, if not the letter of the law."

Gill notes that Workforce Strategist had to shut its doors when that contract was put on hold by the controversy -- a sign, Gill argues, of how much Stamps was banking on his inside connections.

"I think the most amazing thing is that, as that state money stops, there's no there there," the talk radio hosts says, "because if the state dollars are not there that are directed by the Sundquist administration, it seems that these businesses don't really exist."

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