Former Finance Commissioner Testifies Before Grand Jury - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Friends in High Places

Former Finance Commissioner Testifies Before Grand Jury

(Story created: 4/7/04)

A federal grand jury has turned up the heat on the former Sundquist administration. Wednesday, a parade of high-level witnesses appeared before the grand jury that's investigating alleged insider contracts given to friends of former Gov. Don Sundquist.

It's an inquiry prompted by NewsChannel 5's own "Friends in High Places" investigation.

Among those appearing was one of Sundquist's finance commissioners, Warren Neel. In his position, Neel signed off on some of the contracts give to friends of the governor, John Stamps and Al Ganier.

"We talked about the contract process," Neel later told NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.

"I thought it was very nice.  They were very cordial, asked some wonderful questions -- and I was happy to accommodate them."

"Did you have knowledge of any wrongdoing?" Williams asked.

"Nope, I didn't," Neel replied. "Otherwise, I wouldn't have been in the administration."

In addition, the current Labor Commissioner Jim Neeley was subpoenaed to testify, although he indicated afterwards that he did not actually get a chance to speak to the grand jury.

Previously, Neeley was the head of the Tennessee AFL-CIO and chairman of the state's Workforce Development Board.

In 1999, Sundquist administration officials asked the advisory board to endorse a $1.9 million, no-bid contract given to Workforce Strategists. That company, owned by John Stamps, was supposed to provide counseling and coaching for the unemployed.

During the Workforce Development Board meeting, Neeley indicated that he had been told that pressure to approve the contract was coming from Sundquist himself.

"This is the governor's discretionary money," Neeley said at the time.

"I think I told the commissioner earlier this week in regard to this, the governor can spend his money any way he wants to. He's got sole discretion. If he wants to burn it, I guess he could do that." (Read original report.)

Last month, the grand jury indicted a former Sundquist Labor Department employee.  Joanna Ediger is accused to helping to rig the Workforce Strategists contract.

Other witnesses included Darrell Akins, a Sundquist supporter who landed a controversial contract to provide public relations services for the state during the Republican administration.

Akins tells NewsChannel 5 that he was assured that he is not a target of the investigation.

Instead, investigators wanted to ask about his company's "past associations" with individuals who are under investigation, Akins said.

He declined to name those individuals, but Stamps was once a registered lobbyist with the lobbying arm of Akins' company.

Also appearing was an employee of Education Networks of America, another company owned by Sundquist friends and that received lucrative state contracts.

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