Gov. Bill Haslam took questions from reporters Tuesday at Lipscomb University following an awards ceremony recognizing environmental stewardship. The questions included queries about his relationship with active lobbyist Tom Ingram, one of the more influential people in the state. Haslam has come under fire for paying Ingram personally for his consultant work instead of from his campaign account which is open to public inspection. Here is the give-and-take.
Reporter: The Knoxville News Sentinel had an editorial suggesting that if you are paying Tom Ingram personally, that amounts to a campaign contribution using your own money, which as your own money should disclose it.
Haslam: A couple of things. First of all, we always were planning on this summer starting to pay Tom out of the campaign. So we’re going to be doing that. And secondly, actually, the way that got started, coming out of the transition when Tom ran that, I saw how helpful Tom was and thinking through setting up state government. And he had been a deputy governor, been a chief of staff for a United States senator. I thought this could continue to be helpful to us. Now, it wasn’t fair to have the state pay Tom and he wasn’t doing political work to where it should be campaign (funds). He was literally helping me as I thought through organizational issues inside state government. So, I thought, again, it’s not fair to charge the state, it’s not fair to have campaign funds pay that, so that’s what we did. And now that we move into the campaign, the campaign will pay him.
Reporter: But some element of that was political advice as I understood you earlier.
Haslam: Well, ultimately, it’s hard. I mean, how do you dissect everything and say this, but -- Tom’s primary, like I said, that began when coming out of the transition when he was helping us on organizational issues and that’s, again, it didn’t feel fair to have the campaign pay that.
Reporter: Did he also talk to you about campaign matters during this time?
Haslam: We hadn’t really been in the middle of a campaign. I mean, even now, I’m not. At some point, are there times when we’ve talked about, “Alright when we kick into campaign mode, what will we do?” Sure. But Tom’s primary responsibility was to help an organization think, “Hey, here’s one thing to think about this.” People are worried about, well is there some conflict with me paying Tom and he’s lobbying. Think about it this way: If I’m spending time with Tom Ingram and I’m paying him, are we going to be talking about what his client wants us to talk about or what I want to talk about? If I’m paying him, we’re going to be talking about what I want to talk about.
Reporter: You don’t believe there’s any obligation under the campaign finance law for you disclose any part?
Halsam: I don’t. I don’t. I don’t.
Reporter: And would not intend to?
Haslam: And going forward, like I said, now as we move into campaign mode, we’re going to do that. I think we’re actually starting that this summer, that we’ll move into what the campaign will pay him.
Reporter: Has Mr. Ingram ever asked your staff to intervene on behalf of his clients?
Halsam: Well, Tom is a registered lobbyist for some folks. I’m assuming he has.
Reporter: You see that as a conflict?
Haslam: With what? I mean, he’s a registered lobbyist. That’s what lobbyists do.
Reporter: Well, he’s advising you on state government issues.
Haslam: Yeah, but he’s also, again for those things, remember, go back to what I said. If Tom and I are talking, and I’m paying Tom for his advice, am I asking him for his recommendation for his client, or am I getting advice for me and for running state government.
Reporter: Do you not think he wants anything out of it?
Haslam: Tom’s like a lot of other business folks. He’s trying to increase his business. But, again, for what I’m paying him for is what I think will help the state run better and then going forward it will be for what makes the campaign better.
Reporter: Do you think that carries through with your staff with how they perceive him? And that they can make that distinction?
Haslam: You guys have been around. There’s lobbyists of all types who have all sorts of relationships. To say that anybody who has a relationship can’t or shouldn’t lobby is kind of difficult, right.
Reporter: Is Tom the only one on your payroll?
Haslam: Yes. I mean, I have accountants and lawyers. I have other -- I mean, I look at Tom. Like I said, that’s a personal decision of something that I can pay Tom to do. Like I said, going forward, as we move into campaign mode, the campaign would pay for it.
Reporter: Do lobbyists have equal access to your office?
Haslam: There’s a whole lot of lobbyists that are up talking to our people all the time. I mean, walk down to Legislatorland or to our offices, there’s a whole lot of people that make a living doing that.