NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Emails from Robert Swope’s government account reveal how the Metro Council member has repeatedly mixed Council business with his private business.
It comes as his colleagues are already mulling a possible ethics investigation, and Swope continues to insist that he never attempted to do business directly with the city of Nashville.
"At no point have I ever asked this city for one dime, one penny, one agreement, one memorandum of understanding or even a letter of intent,” Swope said last week during an interview on WWTN talk radio.
The emails, obtained through a request under the Tennessee Public Records Act, provide more insight into the Swope’s relationship with Memphis-based architect Paul Doherty and how their company, The Digit Group (TDG), relied on Swope’s Council connections.
They had apparently met at a conference in Yinchuan, China.
“What a Pleasure meeting you in Yinchuan,” Swope emailed Doherty on Sept. 25, 2017.
“Great times my new friend."
The emails suggest Doherty had laid out his ideas for mass transit, as well as a concept where electricity could be produced from people’s movements – claims that, our investigation discovered, Doherty has sometimes greatly exaggerated.
“I … would love to see the electric bus you have if that is possible? Please let me know,” Swope continued.
“I have already spoken with my folks in Nashville and we are excited about your buses and more importantly, your kinetic energy solutions. Can't wait to get together again to discuss these things further.”
Six months later, Swope introduced Doherty at a press event in Nashville to lay out a futuristic vision for Nashville transit, using autonomous, self-driving vehicles.
By this point, some of Swope’s emails identify him as “managing director” for TDG Media, as well as a Metro councilman.
Swope and Doherty soon set their eyes on the Metro Transit Authority's electric vehicle program with Doherty, on June 20, 2018, emailing a colleague about a contract that MTA already had with another company.
“Robert believes if we can save on the per unit cost, we could take over the deliverable contract,” Doherty wrote.
“I would encourage that TDG, in addition to the unit deliverable, also take a position on the maintenance and repair phase/contract… and on the charging station contract."
Responding to NewsChannel 5's questions about that email, Swope dismissed it as "a private communication between business partners" and insisted "nothing ever happened regarding the content."
Behind the scenes in Nashville, Swope was pushing for a pilot program that, according to his PowerPoint, would have involved his company leasing mass transit vehicles to the city.
Then, when Amazon decided to establish a major presence downtown and was lobbying the Council to approve incentives, the Metro Council member pitched his proposal to the company.
On March 2, 2019, using his Council email, Swope sent his transit plan, along with a proposal for the pilot program, to Amazon representatives.
“I welcome your thoughts on each!” Swope wrote.
“I do believe there are numerous ways in which Amazon and Intelligent Transit can work together in the implementation of these ideas, and welcome your thoughts regarding a mutual working relationship as well.”
The very next day, Doherty was already suggesting to a potential investor that deals with Amazon and others might be imminent.
“Robert has presented this to local and state government officials in Tennessee, as well as senior leadership of Amazon,” Swope’s business partner emailed the investor.
“We have confirmation of matching funds from the government for this approximately US$30 million pilot program. We need to raise US$15 million to get to our matching funds budget.
“This week, Amazon is communicating with Robert on the amount of funding they will provide.”
Doherty also suggested that Colin Reed of Ryman Hospitality Properties had “verbally committed to provide investment in the pilot with the exact amount to be agreed upon shortly.”
He continued, “Robert and I talked this weekend and believe we will need to raise US$5-10 million independently from Amazon or Mr. Reed."
Swope quickly shot back.
“Careful what you say here brother,” Swope emailed Doherty.
“You are putting me in a position that no one wins if you are not very cognizant of what you write. The same goes for the other emails you sent to our friends overseas.”
Swope ended cryptically: “Softly slowly catchee monkey.”
“The goal is to get these guys on the hook… we don’t need to reel them in if Amazon bites,” the partner emailed.
Swope’s response: “Want BOTH to bite… and Swallow.”
Responding to NewsChannel 5's questions, Swope said Amazon representatives wanted to discuss pending legislation, which gave him a chance to suggest the joint business interest.
"It is not unlawful for two business owners to meet in private and discuss business," Swope said.
A few days later, on March 8, 2019, Swope emailed the head of Ryman Properties about possibly providing support for his pilot program.
“There are a number of good things happening around this proposal including ongoing funding conversations from TVA, TDEC, TDOT, MTA, RTA, the Mayors Office, and the Governors Office of Energy Programs,” Swope claimed, “not to mention enthusiastic conversations with Amazon and General Motors about participating.”
He suggested that Ryman Properties was “key to the success of this initiative, and I want you to know that your thoughts and comments are greatly valued as we move forward.”
A spokesperson for Ryman Hospitality Properties told NewsChannel 5 Investigates, "Members of our team met with Councilman Swope to review the Intelligent Transit Plan and ultimately decided the project was not something we were interested in pursuing."
As for Doherty's claims that Colin Reed had "verbally committed to provide investment," the spokesperson said: "Suggestions that anyone from Ryman Hospitality Properties verbally committed funds to the project are untrue."
Swope dismissed those emails as being "private" matters.
"If any impropriety exists, it is simply that my Council account was used for private business, something that happens on occasion to every member of Council," he added.
Still, the Metro Council member continued his efforts to use his position to make deals for his company.
As NewsChannel 5 Investigates previously reported, another email shows that, less than a month after John Cooper’s October 2019 swearing in, Swope was pressing for an official endorsement from the new mayor and other city officials.
“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 emailed.
It's not clear whether Swope and Doherty needed that letter for investors - or for some other reason.
But, in November 2019, from his government account, Swope emailed the potential investor, “We are closing a huge investment agreement that grants us the funding necessary to implement our Intelligent Transit plans in Nashville beginning the first quarter of 2020."
He also added, "Paul and I merged our companies. We are now equal partners in TDG.”
Within weeks, the duo was again trying to lobby the mayor to adopt their plan, drawing warnings from colleagues about the potential ethical concerns.
This past April, Swope’s partner again wanted a “proposed letter from the mayor” about a development project so they could “get the operational cash flowing.”
A month later, Swope was proposing a $500 million “loan arrangement" between his company and the city.
Metro ethics laws make it illegal for Council members to use their positions to try to influence any decision where they might have a financial interest.
Buried in Swope’s emails, NewsChannel 5 Investigates also discovered another curious example.
In 2017, Swope had sponsored a zoning change that cleared the way for a self-storage facility in his district, located right next to a residential area.
Somehow, when the developer shared his grand opening plans, the Metro Council member had come across the company’s contract for its solar-power set-up.
He emailed his business partner.
“Look down in this email chain,” Swope told Doherty. “There is a dropbox url that you will find interesting. The entire contract with Light Wave... and tech schematics.
“Let's change this....”
Doherty’s response: "US$240,000?!? LOL... we'll get this contract for a national roll out at a fraction of this along with a nice profit for us..”
Again from his Metro account, Swope emailed the developer who had sought the zoning change: “Give us a week and let’s save you a Ton of dollars.”
The developer told NewsChannel 5 that he cannot remember if Swope or Doherty ever gave him a proposal, although he insisted there was never any deal with their company.
"I understand you're on the war path here," he wrote, "and you're now onto at least the 7th story about me questioning the job I was elected to do that I spend nearly 40-50 hours doing the very best I can for my constituents. A job which is supposed to be part time."
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