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Sundquist Insider Eyed for U.S. Attorney Job


For almost five years, the U.S. Attorney's Office here in Nashville has investigated contracts given out under former Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist.

That investigation continues.

But, now, the Bush administration is considering putting a former Sundquist administration insider in charge of that office.

Sources tell NewsChannel 5 chief investigative reporter Phil Williams that  Nashville attorney and lobbyist Courtney Pearre has emerged as a leading contender for the U.S. Attorney job in Nashville.

That would put Pearre -- who once served as legal counsel to Sundquist -- in charge of the office and the staff who've led the public corruption investigation of his former boss's administration.

"Once you are sworn in as U.S. attorney, there's where the politics stop -- has to," says former U.S. Attorney Ernie Williams of Franklin.

Williams held the post for two years under the first Bush administration.

He says, if Pearre is nominated, he'll face some tough questions during the FBI background check that's done before confirmation hearings in the U.S. Senate.

"If he has any connections," Ernie Williams adds, "then any connections to somebody being under investigation would be looked at very, very closely."

At the center of the investigation: how two of the governor's closest friends landed hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts -- questions first uncovered by a NewsChannel 5 investigation, which drew Pearre's ire two years ago in several sharply worded e-mail messages.

"When this is over and Gov. Sundquist has not been accused of any wrongdoing," Pearre demanded of Phil Williams, "will you go on the air [and] apologize?"

But in 2004, a jury convicted Sundquist appointee Joanna Ediger for helping to rig a contract for what was then a non-existent company owned by the governor's friend, John Stamps.

Federal prosecutors told the jury it was all part of what they called an "atmosphere of corruption."

But Pearre disagreed: "You have found one bad apple and concluded the whole administration was corrupt."

A year later, Stamps himself pleaded guilty to writing a false memo to get that contract renewed.

As to what the governor knew, "I can answer these questions for you," Pearre insisted. "He had nothing to do with any of the acts to which John Stamps plead[ed] guilty."

And later this year, another Sundquist friend, Al Ganier, is expected to go on trial for allegedly trying to obstruct the federal investigation into a schools Internet contract given to his company, Education Networks of America.

At one time, ENA's board members included current Republican Senator Lamar Alexander -- who's expected to have a say in whom the president nominates.

Ernie Williams says, "My guess is that the Bush administration does not want any more embarrassment than they've had lately."

Which is why the former U.S. attorney says, if Pearre is nominated and confirmed, the Justice Department will have to place a wall between him and the on-going public corruption investigation.

"I mean, the assistants can't even talk to you about it.  You won't have any information to it.  You will be sealed off from that file totally, and they can do that."

In fact, sources say backing for Pearre's nomination is coming from those close to the former Tennessee governor, who still maintains close ties to President Bush and political adviser Karl Rove.

Pearre recently told the Nashville City Paper that he had been approached by people, in the newspaper's words, "with the potential to make his nomination a reality."

But, in the end, the decision will also be in the hands of the U.S. Senate.

Another Nashville attorney also under consideration, Ed Yarbrough, has previously defended former Democratic state Senator John Ford and Williamson County Sheriff Ricky Headley, a Republican.

Ernie Williams says Yarbrough would have to be walled off from those cases if he got the job, but he wouldn't face the same sort of questions about his personal involvement.

Pearre didn't respond to an opportunity for him to comment.

In addition to being Sundquist's former legal counsel, Pearre is now a Capitol Hill lobbyist.

Among his clients: a company that wants to rewrite the state's gambling laws so that it can manufacture video gambling machines here in Tennessee.

That legislation is opposed by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

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