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Toll Road Developer Taps Inside Connections

Gerald Nicely, Velma Jones, Phillip Pinion Gerald Nicely, Velma Jones, Phillip Pinion
Pinion, Jones Pinion, Jones
(Story created: 2/26/07)

NewsChannel 5 investigates an idea that could cost you money --  just to drive down the road.

Some big companies want to make some Tennessee roads their roads to riches.

And one company is using some inside connections to the most powerful people in state government.

Because of loopholes in the state's ethics laws, what these companies are doing is entirely legal.

But if they get their way, you could still end up paying the price.

***

Imagine you had to pay just to drive down a road -- a road that instead of belonging to everyone -- just might belong to a private company.

"After going to all these conferences, I am sold on it," House Transportation Committee chairman Phillip Pinion, D-Union City, told his colleagues just last week.

It's an idea that Pinion is aggressively pushing as a way to allow companies to build new roads without lawmakers having to raise gas taxes.

"This would be money that would come in from private dollars. and they would lease it and pay the state 'X' number of dollars per year," Pinion told NewsChannel 5 chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.

Among those pushing for privately operated toll roads is a Capitol Hill lobbyist with close ties to both Pinion and Transportation Commissioner Gerald Nicely.

"She was the chief of staff here at TDOT," Nicely says.

For more than three years, Velma Jones was Nicely's top assistant.

But last March, she left state government and went to work as a lobbyist for a giant engineering firm, CTE-AECOM, reporting that she planned to lobby on "notices issued by the Tennessee Department of Transportation."

In other words, Nicely says, "I would assume it would be state contracts and possibly a lot of other stuff."

Stuff like tolls roads.

It's an area where Jones' client, AECOM, has been able to cash in, landing several projects across the country worth billions of dollars.

"The interest of her clients is, of course, it would be privately owned or privately leased. It would be a profit-making operation," the commissioner explains.

Those profits earned at the expense of drivers.

It's a notion that, six weeks after leaving Nicely's office, had Jones back at TDOT offices with her clients to make a pitch to the commissioner and her former colleagues.

Williams: "She isn't any sort of toll road expert."
Nicely: "Not as far as I know, she's not."
Williams: "But she had the connections."
Nicely: "Well, I guess you could say a lot of people have connections to the department."

Notes from that meeting suggest that AECOM felt it could be an investor or PM -- that's project manager -- even the engineer on such toll roads.

"Sure, anybody that could do that, I'm sure could make some money," Nicely says. "It would take a big firm. It would take a very large firm to be able to get into something like that."

It's a pitch that TDOT says Jones' clients had made to the chairmen of the House and Senate transportation committees.

Notes show AECOM's "step one" would be "enabling legislation" to allow for toll roads.

Which brings us back to Pinion, who is sponsoring legislation to do just that.

"All my legislation this year does is put into place the infrastructure to allow us at some point if we have to go to that," Pinion tells Williams.

Williams asks, "What is your relationship with Ms. Jones?"

"Well, I don't know if that's any of your business, if you want to know the truth," the lawmaker responds.

In fact, Jones is not only the TDOT commissioner's former assistant. She's also the House transportation chairman's girlfriend.

"What are you trying to get at here?" Pinion demands of Williams.

The question: does Pinion see a conflict of interest?

Pinion: "I've made a rule that we end the day when the day is ended and we don't talk about things like that. So, no."
Williams: "You never talk about the fact that her client is interested in legislation that you have?"
Pinion: "She has mentioned that her client is interested. I've said, you know what, we don't need to talk about that."

In fact, Pinion admits he has met with Jones' clients, but insists he was thinking about pushing toll roads long before AECOM hired his significant other.

Pinion: "She's never lobbied me on one thing."
Williams: "But you know what her clients are interested in."
Pinion: "I do, but so am I interested in the same things."

After TDOT's meeting on toll roads, her former colleagues commissioned a half-a-million dollar study from another firm, asking for a media strategy called "the path to public acceptance."

"I am sure those people who have been involved in those kinds of partnerships would like to see it legalized here in Tennessee," Nicely says.

But the TDOT commissioner insists his former aide's involvement in the issue hasn't affected his judgment, as does her boyfriend -- the chairman.

But if her clients get their way, they could still be cashing in as you pay one mile at a time.

Again, tapping into these sorts of inside connections is entirely legal.

That's because lawmakers themselves refused to make it illegal for their spouses -- or in this case, girlfriends -- to go to work for special interests.

They did make it illegal for commissioners to lobby for a year after leaving office -- but not the commissioner's staff.

For more information:
Report from a congressional hearing on toll roads
Testimony from congressional hearing on toll roads
Cato Institute: "The Case for Privatizing the Highways"
Mother Jones: Critical report on privatization of highways

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