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NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Friends in High Places

E-Mail May Provide Valuable Clues in Contracts Investigation

(Story created: 10/31/03)

First, there were raids. More recently, there's been a parade of witnesses before a federal grand jury investigating state contracts. Now, thousands of e-mails could provide important clues about how the Sundquist administration handled those contracts.

Millions of people communicate every day by e-mail.

So when investigators began investigating contracts handed out by the administration of former Gov. Don Sundquist, they quickly issued a federal grand jury subpoena for thousands of e-mail messages. Included was a demand for messages to and from Sundquist and other top officials.

The probe was prompted by our Friends in High Places investigation

"People put things in e-mails never expecting that they are going to have to explain them," says retired FBI agent Ben Purser.

A sampling of the e-mails provided to the grand jury -- and obtained by NewsChannel 5 -- deal with a request for proposals for computer services. RFPs, as they are called, are supposed to be judged by an impartial selection panel.

"What you are holding in your hands could very well be evidence," Purser tells NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.

For example, there's an August 2002 e-mail from Sundquist's chief administrative officer Todd Cruse.

"When do you anticipate putting together the selection panel," Cruse asks the state's head of information resources. "I have an interest in who we choose."

Cruse would later become a lobbyist for SCB Computer Technology, one of the state's big computer contractors and a bidder for the job.

"Perhaps, and I emphasize perhaps, there could be some influence there," Purser observes.

Cruse, however, tells NewsChannel 5 he was just expressing a naive curiosity about how the process worked.

But that's not how it was taken at the time.

"Honoring his request is simply out of the question," wrote Richard Rognehaugh, then the state's new head of information resources, to Finance Commissioner Warren Neel.

Neel responded, "My guide is and remains.. keep the process clean and above reproach.

That same process was used to hand out hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts. Investigators will want to know if there were efforts to stack other selection panels -- and if there were other department heads who were more willing to go along with those efforts.

Cruse's e-mails also hint at pressure from powerful Senate chairman Jerry Cooper relating to a homeland security project.

"I would like to be able to tell Senator Cooper when he calls, again, that I am getting a response out to her by the end of the day," the Sundquist administration official wrote.

The "her" was Cooper's wife, who was lobbyist for a company that wanted in on talks about the contract.

Purser says, "The e-mails that you've shown me would demonstrate the amount of political influence that is being used in a process that is supposed to be void of political influence."

Those e-mails are just a tiny fraction of what the state's computer experts are recovering from computer backups. The grand jury subpoena demands messages from the highest levels of the Sundquist administration.

The subpoena for e-mail records was issued last December. But the state's computer experts say restoring backups has been such a massive chore that they still aren't finished with the job.

"Some of the folks did not appear to be habitual e-mail senders or receivers," Rognehaugh tells Phil Williams.

He says how much evidence that's available for the federal grand jury will depend upon the e-mail habits of the Sundquist administration officials now under scrutiny.

"The federal grand jury in any public corruption investigation is following a paper trail," Purser adds.

In this case, it's not paper -- but a trail of bits and bytes that some probably never realized they were leaving.

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