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Did Metro Council member abuse position? Robert Swope repeatedly warned his actions might be illegal

Swope says he was trying to solve city's problems
Posted: 12:57 PM, Oct 29, 2020
Updated: 2020-10-29 21:41:21-04
Robert Swope on Councl Floor.jpg

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A Metro Council member appears to have repeatedly used his position to try to help himself and his company.

Robert Swope insists he was just trying to help the community, but a three-month NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered Swope was repeatedly told what he was doing might be illegal.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Swope, "Why is there a perception that you cross your city business with personal business?"

"I have no idea," he answered. "I go to great lengths not to and always have."

Back in September, NewsChannel 5 first revealed Swope's involvement in millions of dollars in no-bid deals with the state of Tennessee for supplies related to the COVID-19 pandemic - and how he even tried to sell city officials.

Now, we've discovered he has also tried to talk his way into other big deals with the city, sometimes with claims that don't add up.

Do you have additional information for our investigation? Email: investigate@newschannel5.com

Take, for example, Swope's idea for "Intelligent Transit" for Nashville with self-driving autonomous vehicles. It was a concept unveiled just before voting began during a 2018 referendum on Mayor Megan Barry's transit plan.

In the last year, Swope has boasted that his company The Digit Group, or TDG, had won international acclaim for that proposal.

"I'm immensely proud of the work that my partners and I have done on this," Swope said last December during an interview on WKRN's "This Week with Bob Mueller."

"We just won the AVT Aces Award, which in the autonomous vehicle world is probably the pinnacle of everything."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Swope, "Was that a legitimate award?"

The Metro Council member laughed.

"Well, you tell me."

The award citation said TDG was delivering the "world's first autonomous public transportation system" after "receiving a mandate" from Nashville voters.

AVT Aces Award for TDG.png
Excerpt of AVT Aces Award citation for TDG

"That was when we were killing the $9 billion referendum," Swope explained.

NewsChannel 5 noted, "But there was no referendum on your plan."

"No, there wasn't," Swope admitted. "We killed the $9 billion one."

Still, we pushed, "But you had no mandate for your plan."

"It's PR. OK?" he responded. "Public relations."

"So, lying?" we asked.

"No, it's PR."

Last year, the Metro Council member and his business partner used that award as part of their unsuccessful effort to talk new Mayor John Cooper and other city officials into endorsing their plan.

"I am requesting a letter. Nothing More. A simple letter stating that the City of Nashville supports the endeavors that my company (TDG) is willing to invest upwards of 50 Million USD to achieve," Swope said in an email to Cooper.

In that same email, Swope claimed he and his television production company had won "eight Grammys." A spokesperson for the Grammys told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that Swope has not received any credits on any Grammy awards or nominations.

"I had made an offer to this city to implement my Intelligent Transit program at no cost to this city in an experimental manner," Swope told NewsChannel 5.

"In order to do that, our financial partners overseas needed something in writing from this city stating that they were interested in pursuing that."

That's despite a Metro ordinance that makes it illegal for Council members to use their positions to try to influence any decision where they might have a financial interest.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "That was sent using Council email, signed as a Metro Council member, where you stood to benefit. How is that not using your position?"

Swope responded, "I was bringing money to the table and the expertise - and asking the city for nothing. How do I benefit from that?"

But we checked out Swope's proposal.

"It is our intention to lease mass transit vehicles to the city," it reads.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Swope, "Were you told that would be a conflict of interest?"

"No," he insisted.

But a December 2019 email shows the mayor's legislative liaison, Mike Jameson, had warned Swope: "If there is any metropolitan government decision to be made, your participation in presenting Intelligent Transit would appear to be prohibited."

Swope then turned to fellow Council member Bob Mendes, who is a lawyer.

"Mr. Swope had forwarded me Jameson's email and then asked me for legal advice. So my email made it clear that he should talk to the Metro Council's lawyer because I'm not his lawyer," Mendes told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

Still, Mendes' own email was clear: "If you are asking for 'decisions' or 'actions' from Metro to accommodate a for-profit activity that you own an interest in, I think I would steer clear of that."

"You don't need to be a lawyer to read the Metro ethics rules," Mendes later told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

"They say it pretty clearly that if you've got a financial interest in something, you shouldn't be asking Metro employees to do something in furtherance of your financial interest."

But that didn't stop Swope from continuing to use his position with the city to try to work out a deal with his company.

In January of this year, he used Council offices for a meeting with representatives from Verizon.

"We do that on a regular basis," Swope told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

We noted, "You were trying to get Verizon to cut a deal with your company."

"Not at that meeting, I wasn't," the Metro Council member claimed. "That meeting was all about Verizon's 5G system going into Nashville."

But Swope's business partner tweeted a pic of the conference room, saying "TDG's meetings at Nashville City Hall with Verizon and City Hall officials this afternoon went very well."

TDG City Hall Tweet Horizontal.png

And Swope's own email says the meeting was about "a partnership with Verizon in the implementation of my Intelligent Transit plan here in Nashville."

"And you are taking an email way out of context," the Council member responded.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "So what part of 'my Intelligent Transit plan for Nashville' do I not understand?"

"It's the same Intelligent Transit plan I introduced three and a half years ago."

We continued, "And your company would stand to benefit from that."

Swope let out a long sigh.

"In the long run, yes," he finally admitted.

This past April, his partner sent Swope the company's "confidential" proposal for a development called "Nashville World Healthcare City," saying they needed to get a "letter from the mayor ... to get the operational cash flowing."

Within days, an email from Finance Director Kevin Crumbo shows Swope was also proposing a "$500 million interest-free loan arrangement with his Dubai-based company" and the city, "which would be repaid in some manner with a ownership transfer of some portion of infrastructure built with the proceeds."

Swope wanted to introduce a "substitute budget" based on his company's plan.

Like with Jameson and Mendes, Crumbo suggested that Metro Council attorney Jon Cooper should "provide guidance on the conflicts associated with a Council member proposing a substitute with a related party."

Swope's explanation?

"We were loaning the city a half a billion," the Council member claimed.

And how would that work?

"We never came to terms on it, so it didn't work."

Mendes, who was budget chair at the time, wasn't buying what Swope was selling.

"It would strike me as odd that a Council member has got control over lending a half a billion dollars," he told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

"On its face, it reads like a Councilman Swope business would be doing business with Metro in exchange for ownership interests in Metro assets. So I told Mr. Crumbo that I couldn't be a part of any conversation about that."

Still, Swope remains unapologetic.

"Phil, I am attempting to solve transit problems, energy problems, affordable housing problems, safety and education problems," he insisted.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates responded, "And you stand to make money off of that."

Again, Swope sighed.

"I guess in the long run, sure. And what's wrong with that?"

Again, what's wrong with that is: Metro's ethical conduct rules prohibit Council members from trying to influence any government decision where they might stand to profit.

In those kinds of situations if complaints are filed, the Metro Board of Ethical Conduct would investigate - and decide what action would be appropriate.

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View emails related to Swope's proposed business deals below: