Road Builders Have Long History of Wielding Influence - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NewsChannel 5 Investigates: High-Dollar Highways

Road Builders Have Long History of Wielding Influence

(Story created: 5/26/04)

The TBI has joined the probe into possible bid-rigging by state highway contractors. But some question who was policing the industry before this investigation and whether they were influenced by the its power and money.

Tennessee road builders pull in hundreds of millions of dollars from taxpayers... leaving the industry able to return the favor to Tennessee's public officials.

For example, there was a golf outing provided to then-governor Don Sundquist and his transportation commissioner Bruce Saltsman.

Highway contractors also repeatedly loaned their jets to Sundquist.

Among them: the owner of Lojac Inc., Jack Lowery. Lowery is also an attorney who represented former Sundquist officials Joanna Ediger in her federal corruption trial.

Among the flights Lowery provided was a trip to the Kentucky Derby in 1999.

In fact, Sundquist and Saltsman's golf outings emerged during Ediger's jury selection when a potential juror described joining them on an outing with a highway contractor friend.

"He was doing what he did to make it work for his company," the man said, referring to his state contract.

Kent Starwalt, from the Tennessee Road Builders Association, is the industry's lobbyist on Capitol Hill, "there was nothing wrong with such favors.

"Is that trying to buy favor?" NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams asks.

"No, it's not."

In fact, if a company sells a bulldozer to the Tennessee Department of Transportation, it might be illegal for them to provide such favors.

But if they sell tens of millions of dollars in highway construction services, it's entirely legal.

TDOT Commissioner Gerald Nicely doesn't think that makes sense.

"I think probably that prohibition on gifts should be extended to service providers as well as vendors," he added.

In fact, the only real prohibition is that the Road Builders Association -- because it employs a lobbyist -- cannot provide gifts directly.

"We don't give gifts to government officials," Starwalt says.

"What about Fiesta Bowl tickets, 1999," Williams responds.

"I don't know anything about any gifts."

But in a note from Sundquist's papers, Starwalt writes: "Dear governor, here are two tickets for the Fiesta Bowl. We are glad to be able to help you."

"The tickets actually were not from the road builders. They were from a member of ours," Starwalt replies.

"But you as the lobbyist gave them to the governor," Williams says.

"Yes, the tickets were given to me to give to him."

But critics like Greene County's J.C. Jones say such free junkets for Tennessee's public officials may end up costing you a lot.

"Any amount of money to lobby with is cheap money, compared to having competition, in my opinion."

Jack Lowery -- and every other industry person we've talked to -- said they only provided such favors as a courtesy when they were asked. But that they never asked for or expected any favors.

And they say they know of no wrong-doing when it comes to bids on highway contracts.

The criminal investigation is in its early stages. And investigators aren't naming any names about who may become the focus.

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