ECD Commissioner: Governor told us to shelve controversial $4 million grant fund

Posted at 1:05 PM, Nov 04, 2019

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The commissioner of the state's department of economic and community development distanced himself Monday from a controversial fund some say could have been used as a bribe to secure votes for the school voucher program.

The community development grant fund was not brought up during budget meetings with Governor Bill Lee, Monday. However, the commissioner of TN ECD, Bob Rolfe, said he was told about the fund shortly before the budget for 2020 fiscal year was passed.

"Right before the budget was passed, commissioner McWhorter called me and said part of one of the rural development you're going to see a line item of $3 million to go some of these rural programs, part of the executive order number one that the governor had laid out back in January," Rolfe said. "What I wasn't aware of was a day later when the budget was passed, an extra million had been added. So, three million went to four million and I think all passed unanimously in the general assembly."

Rolfe said he was told the fund would be used to fund community development in rural areas and that the grants would be awarded through a scoring system.

However, once questions were raised about the origin and intent of those funds, Governor Lee instructed Rolfe to freeze the funds until an investigation was complete.

Lee told reporters Monday afternoon that he always knew the fund's intended purpose.

"We knew exactly what the process was," said Lee. "There were a number of lawmakers who have expressed uncertainty in how the funds would be distributed and what the process would be. Because of that lack of clarity and their lack of understanding with the process we said 'Well, let's just hold up and make sure everyone knows exactly how it's going to be done.'"

Rolfe said the department awards about 300-400 grants each year. The funds could be available to the department in the future.

"The governor's decided to set it aside right now," Rolfe said.