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Tennessee governor denies knowing about alleged bribe offer

Posted: 5:49 PM, Aug 01, 2019
Updated: 2019-08-02 07:19:22-04
Governor Bill Lee.jpg

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee says he does not know anything about an alleged bribe that was offered to get his school vouchers legislation passed through the state House.

It was Lee's first public comment since state Rep. John Mark Windle, a colonel in the Tennessee National Guard, confirmed to NewsChannel 5 Investigates that outgoing House Speaker Glen Casada had suggested he could get promoted to general if he voted for the bill.

The only person who can promote National Guard officers is the governor himself.

Lee was clipped in his responses.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "What do you know about that offer?"

"I don't know anything about that," the governor responded.

Was he part of those conversations?

"I was not."

Were members of his staff?

"They were not."

Has he asked them?

"I have."

The alleged bribe offer occurred on April 23rd when the House vote on the vouchers bill was deadlocked.

Windle, a Democrat from Livingston, was called out on a balcony at the state Capitol where he says the offer was made.

Casada has denied that he "promised" Windle a promotion.

RELATED:

Voucher vote: Tax money offered as bait, possible bribery

Multiple sources tell NewsChannel 5 that Lee's chief of staff, Blake Harris, was on the balcony during those conversations, although no one has tied him to the promotion talk.

And Lee acknowledged he was also on the phone with Windle.

What was the nature of those conversations?

"Encouragement for him to consider passing that legislation," the governor said. "I encouraged a lot of legislators that day and the days before."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates filed a public records request for text messages sent by Harris and two other top aides -- legislative liaison Brent Easley and policy director Tony Niknejad -- on the day of that crucial voucher vote.

But the governor's office says they have no text messages from that day.

We asked Lee, "Does it make sense to you that, on such a crucial day, they would have zero text messages?"

"I have to trust that what they are communicating with you is accurate," he answered.

"I'm sure they had a lot of conversations that day."

NewsChannel 5 also filed a public records request for their emails relating to vouchers from that month, but the governor's office says it's withholding some emails based on "deliberative process privilege" and "attorney-client privilege."

We asked, "Is your office withholding emails relating to incentives or even bribes that were offered?"

"I haven't been asked for those, for emails personally," Lee said. "I don't have any and am not withholding them. And I don't believe anybody in my office is, as well."

But the one thing we did not hear from the governor was any sort of outrage about a bribe possibly being offered to pass his signature piece of legislation.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates pressed, "Governor, do you believe Rep. Windle?"

"I haven't spoken with him," Lee said, quickly adding: "I'm not sure what you are talking about."

We reminded him, "About the promotion being offered."

"Yeah, I haven't talked to him about that," he responded.

So how would he feel if such a promotion had been offered?

"That would be inappropriate," Lee said as he got into his SUV to be driven away.

Although several lawmakers have said there was plenty of talk about funding for pet projects in exchange for votes -- which is not illegal -- Lee also claimed he was also not a part of any such conversations.

View NewsChannel 5's full investigation:

Capitol Hill Controversy