NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Nashville Mayor John Cooper's pick as interim finance director -- the man in charge of the city's checkbook -- faces new controversy.
That nominee, former Metro legal director Saul Solomon, is a lawyer who's been fighting efforts to force a major engineering firm to repay hundreds of thousands of dollars to Nashville taxpayers.
Solomon's connection to that firm, Collier Engineering, has raised eyebrows about Cooper’s decision to nominate him to the city's second most-powerful position.
"It is about perception and perception matters - especially in government," said Metro Council Member Angie Henderson, who has been a frequent critic of Collier's business practices.
Collier Engineering’s involvement with millions of dollars in the city’s road and sidewalk construction programs has been filled with controversy, especially revelations of its efforts to wine and dine city officials with controls over city contracts.
As NewsChannel 5 Investigates raised concerns back in the spring about money that Collier charged Metro without documentation, city lawyers began pushing the firm to reimburse taxpayers.
Solomon pushed back against the city's efforts, which are on-going.
Then, after Henderson participated in a NewsChannel 5 investigation of Collier, Solomon filed a public records request seeking her communications with journalists and potential whistleblowers.
At the time, Solomon was also serving as the interim executive director for MDHA, the Metro Development and Housing Agency.
"It was pretty aggressive in my view," Henderson recalled, noting that Solomon was pursuing her "personal phone texts, emails for a very long list of things to the benefit of his client."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "He was trying to figure out who was giving you information?"
"Correct," she agreed.
As interim finance director, Solomon would sit on the Metro Audit Committee, which investigated his client, and on the city’s Procurement Standards Board, which sets the rules for those companies doing business with the city.
"Much of the dialogue about some concerns, strengths, weaknesses in that space, in our audit, in our procurement standards has been very particular to the firm that he has been very publicly representing," Henderson said.
NewsChannel 5 observed, "And he has pushed back vigorously."
"Indeed, indeed," she agreed.
Cooper spokesperson Andrea Fanta defended Solomon's nomination.
“As an executive in the private sector and the head of two government agencies, Mr. Solomon has managed budgets and asset portfolios that together represent billions of dollars," Fanta said in an email.
"He is a high-caliber leader with an unquestionable commitment to Nashville.”
In a later email, Fanta said that Solomon would be governed by ethics rules that require him to "put Metro’s interests first and above any others."
"Mr. Solomon has already stated he will recuse himself from any and all decisions and discussions involving any entities that could pose a conflict of interest or the perception of one (including Collier’s Engineering and Nashville Soccer Club)," she continued.
"Additionally, Mr. Solomon is further bound by ethical regulations placed upon him as an attorney."
Council Member Bob Mendes has publicly questioned whether Solomon has the right credentials for the job.
Interesting nuance on the Council agenda for next week. The Charter doesn't allow for an interim Director of Finance. The notes on the agenda say Mr. Solomon would be "interim", but if approved, he would hold the formal Charter position of "Director of Finance." pic.twitter.com/ZCWzkYtCGX— Bob Mendes (@mendesbob) September 2, 2021
"The charter requires that the director of finance has a proven background in public or private finance, and Mr. Solomon simply doesn’t check either box," Mendes told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
Mendes said he also worries about how the city can ensure that the interim director of finance is locked out of any information regarding his client.
"Anything related to the procurement issues surrounding Collier Engineering, he should absolutely be excluded from that if he is appointed. There are practical questions about whether that makes fulfilling the role possible. You know, can you have a director of finance who is fundamentally not involved in important procurement issues?"
Neither the mayor's office nor Mr. Solomon responded to our request for comment about the potential conflicts of interest.
The mayor's office says it looks forward to making the case for the Metro Council's approval next week.