NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Friends in High Places
E-Mail Reveals More Efforts to Steer Contracts to Friends
(Story created: 3/1/04)
They thought their e-mail exchanges were secret. But now tens of thousands of messages from the Sundquist administration have been recovered and turned over to a federal grand jury. They show even more efforts to steer contracts to the administration's friends.
"Have you ever used politics to get contracts for your clients?" Phil Williams asked former deputy governor Wendell Moore, just after he testified before a federal grand jury.
"Absolutely not," Moore replied.
The grand jury is investigating alleged insider contracts -- some awarded when Moore was Gov. Don Sundquist's number two man.
Now, hundreds of e-mail messages obtained by NewsChannel 5 reveal a culture in which Moore's own friends in high places were all too willing to help him after he became a Capitol Hill lobbyist.
That included help with state contracts and your tax money.
"When you read the entire e-mail, it is apparent that they are trying to take care of their buddies and their cronies," says Rep. Frank Buck, D-Dowelltown.
Buck is a frequent critic of how state government spends your money.
In fact, Sundquist's special assistant Steve Leonard introduced Moore to SCB Computer Technology and its president Scott Cobb in October 2001 after Moore left the governor's office. SCB had landed millions of dollars in state computer contracts.
"I suggested he talk with SCB," Leonard writes in one e-mail, "as they didn't seem to have any representation."
Moore's lawyer, state Senator Steve Cohen, acknowledges:
"Steve Leonard was fond of Wendell Moore, liked Wendell, thought Wendell was a good guy, apparently liked that company."
SCB wanted the state to hire it to develop a strategy for all of its computer needs. And, the e-mails reveal, Leonard quickly began working with Moore to steer a state contract to them.
"The stars do seem to be aligning," Leonard e-mailed Moore. "A challenge is it seems difficult to get time with the Gov these days."
Moore responds, "I will tell Scott that you are running all the traps ... to get it done.... Again, thanks for everything."
But because of the state's purchasing laws, some career state employees refused to just hand the contract to SCB.
They insisted that the consulting job had to go out for competitive bids.
"Ideally, we would engage SCB for the main agreement," Leonard wrote as that process began.
But when the scores came back, SCB came in third.
So Leonard e-mailed: "Let me ask you to recalibrate." He wanted to give SCB extra points for being a Tennessee company.
But when the career state employees told Leonard that would be improper, he suddenly decided:
"After considerable thought, we should defer this project for now."
"My general reaction: it smells," says Buck.
Cohen responds, "Steve Leonard seemed enthusiastic in trying to help his friend, but there's nothing illegal there."
But Buck says, "It's apparent that they are trying to steer the business to one particular company."
The e-mails also reveal that Leonard helped block efforts to cancel state contracts with SCB and other computer companies, which could have saved millions of dollars.
Then, as administration officials began tapping into homeland security monies, the governor's office began studying whether emergency workers could communicate by computer.
Leonard convinced the UT-Memphis professor in charge of the project to hire SCB as a consultant.
"Mission accomplished with her," Leonard e-mailed Moore.
The former deputy governor responded, "I really think this ... could be a great project for SCB."
Later Leonard wrote, "She is finding a way to get UT to contract with SCB."
That despite the fact that the state's top computer experts offered to do the study for free.
"This bunch thought they ought to do it and spend the money to have a contract," Buck says. "Why spend the money when you could do it inside?"
Still, SCB got a no-bid contract out of the deal -- and an extra $40,000 of your tax money.
"Does this make you mad?" Williams asks Buck.
"Of course, it makes me mad. Somebody needs to be indicted over this."
But Cohen calls that an over-reaction.
"It's just politics. It's friendship. It's nothing illegal."
Leonard did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
In fact, the decision about whether a crime was committed could only be made by the federal grand jury. Many of the people involved in those transactions have been questioned by investigators.