'Money Cop' Candidate Silent About Contracts Scandal - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

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'Money Cop' Candidate Silent About Contracts Scandal

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Justin Wilson Justin Wilson
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey
Former Gov. Don Sundquist, with friend John Stamps Former Gov. Don Sundquist, with friend John Stamps
Tax watchdog Ben Cunningham Tax watchdog Ben Cunningham
Republicans seize control of legislature Republicans seize control of legislature

Next week, Republicans will make history when they take over both houses of the state legislature.

When they take control, they're expected to elect a longtime political activist to be the new state comptroller -- in essence, the state's top budget cop.

But that man, Justin Wilson, now says he's not talking about what he knows about a major scandal involving state contracts -- and your money. That scandal was investigated, in part, by the comptroller's office that Wilson now wants to head.

And our chief investigative reporter Phil Williams discovered that Republican leaders aren't asking either.

Wilson, a former Sundquist administration official, told those leaders that -- when it comes to watching your tax dollars -- he's the man for the job.

"I'm applying for the job of money cop," Wilson told the interview committee.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, calls Wilson "a competent attorney. He's an accomplished business person. I think he'll make an excellent comptroller for the state of Tennessee."

But when the legislature's new Republican majority recently interviewed Wilson for the job overlooking state contracts, no one bothered to ask what he knew about the rigging of a big state contract for a friend of his old boss, then-Gov. Don Sundquist.

And Wilson won't say whether, as Sundquist's deputy governor and one of his closest confidantes, he ever tried to interject himself into the contracts controversy.

"I didn't know there was such a thing, to be honest with you," Ramsey told Phil Williams.

"You didn't know there was a bid-rigging controversy?" Williams asked.

"No, I did not," the lieutenant governor answered.

Five years ago, Sundquist appointee Joanna Ediger was sentenced to federal prison for helping to rig a $2 million state contract for the governor's friend, John Stamps.

Stamps himself later pleaded guilty to fraud charges. But sources say the friend of the governor steadfastly refused to talk about what Sundquist knew.

That investigation was the result of evidence uncovered by NewsChannel 5's "Friends in High Places" investigation. The comptrollers office joined the criminal investigation, along with the FBI, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service.

Other NewsChannel 5 stories highlighted how Stamps and another friend, Al Ganier, stood to reap $40 million from another contract. That contract was tied to a reading initiative pushed by Sundquist in conjunction with his push for a state income tax.

That income tax push was led by Wilson.

"If there was any connection, what was it? To what extent was he involved?" asked tax watchdog Ben Cunningham.

He says if Wilson wants to be the state's budget cop, he should tell everything he knows --  including whatever he might have learned from the governor himself.

But Wilson tells NewsChannel 5 Investigates, "I'm not going to go into any conversations I may have had about this."

"If somebody is running for a very important oversight position like this is and they are unwilling to answer the question, it's a huge red flag," Cunningham said.

Williams asked Ramsey if he had "any reservations" about Wilson's stance.

"None whatsoever," the lieutenant governor responded. He noted that Wilson was never charged with any criminal wrongdoing.

Our NewsChannel 5 investigation has also uncovered questions about Wilson's and Sundquist's activities during this past year's legislative elections that put Republicans in control.

During that time, Wilson operated a political action committee, known as Majority Tennessee. He got almost all of his PAC money -- $50,000 of about $60,000 -- from Sundquist and his leftover campaign account. Then, Sundquist and Wilson funded many of the same candidates.

In some cases, the former governor gave the maximum $2,000 allowed by law, while Wilson used Sundquist's money to give them another $5,000 or $10,000 each dollars each.

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Here's the breakdown from campaign finance reports:

On Sept. 30th, Sundquist gave $1,000 to House candidate Mike Faulk. Two weeks later, Wilson's Majority Tennessee PAC gave Faulk another $10,000.

On Oct. 5th, Sundquist gave the maximum $2,000 to Senate candidate Mike Niederhauser. Sixteen days later, Wilson's PAC gave him another $1,000.

On Oct. 8th, Sundquist gave $1,000 to Senate candidate Ken Yager. Five days later, Wilson's PAC gave him another $10,000.

On Oct. 9th, Sundquist gave the maximum $2,000 to Senate candidate Delores Gresham. Four days later, Wilson's PAC gave her another $10,000.

On Oct 14th, Sundquist gave the maximum $2,000 to Senate candidate Tom Dubois. Five days earlier, Wilson's PAC had given $5,000 to Dubois.

Wilson's PAC also gave contributions of $500-$5,000 dollars for eight other candidates who were not publicly supported by Sundquist. But, in the end, Majority Tennessee supported every Republican candidate who received $1,000 or more from the former governor.

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State campaign finance regulations prohibit the use of a conduit to bypass campaign finance limitations.

"You could get into a situation where you've exceeded contribution limits because you've used an intermediary to make a contribution," said Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.

Wilson only will say that Sundquist wasn't the final decision maker, but will not say whether he and his old boss ever talked about which candidates should get the money.

"These are extremely important questions," Cunningham said. "If the people of Tennessee are going to have confidence in him and the new constitutional officers, they've got to be willing to answer all of these questions."

While Wilson is an accomplished Vanderbilt law school graduate, he also lists a 1995 masters degree from something called Kennedy-Western University.

That's a company that's been described by congressional auditors as a bogus, diploma mill. (See GAO's "Diploma Mill" report from 2004 that focuses on Kennedy-Western. It also was the subject of a U.S. Senate committee hearing.)

Wilson claims he didn't know it wasn't a legitimate institution.

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A 1996 article in Governing Magazine -- titled "Diploma Games" -- states that "[i]n the last couple of years, Kennedy-Western University has had to make substantial cuts in its faculty roster. It was because several of the teachers it used to list in its catalog never taught there in the first place. For that matter, there hardly is a 'there' to Kennedy-Western. It claims California as its headquarters, but it has no students in that state. A correspondence school with no fixed campus, it operates where it can find a jurisdiction that allows it to do business."

A recent NewsChannel 5 investigation highlighted the questionable Kennedy-Western degrees of some Nashville Electric Service executives.  Wilson serves as chairman of the NES board.

A 2007 comptroller's report outlines the problems with so-called diploma mills.

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As for such questions, the lieutenant governor says the TBI did background checks and cleared everyone of the applicants for these constitutional officer jobs.

But the TBI says all it did was to check to see if they had ever been arrested in Tennessee --and that's as far as the background checks went.

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