A vote to scuttle penalties against prominent Republican operative Tom Ingram fell short Thursday in the state Ethics Commission.
The panel on Thursday voted 3-1 to drop the cases against Ingram, his colleague Marcille Durham and client Hillsborough Resources for failing to register to lobby for three years on behalf of a coal company seeking to mine on public lands.
But that was one vote short of the minimum needed to drop the cases, so members agreed to hear the cases again at next month's meeting.
Ingram, who did not attend the hearing, is a top political adviser to Gov. Bill Haslam and also the chief media strategist for Pilot Flying J, the Haslam family-owned truck stop chain under federal investigation for defrauding its customers.
The governor's brother, Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, is Pilot's CEO. And one of the privately-held company's board members, Mike Loya, is the CEO of Hillsborough's parent company.
Gov. Haslam has said Ingram doesn't lobby him personally, that he doesn't know Loya and he has not been involved in the negotiations to mine coal in the Catoosa Wildlife Management Area near Crossville.
WTVF-TV first reported that Ingram was lobbying on behalf of Hillsborough, and neither he or Durham had filed their paperwork with the state Ethics Commission.
Attorney Dick Lodge called the failure to register to lobby an inadvertent oversight, and that they "self-reported" themselves to the Ethics Commission as soon as they realized the error.
"The Ingram Group is not bashful about its lobbying work," Lodge said. "Ms. Durham and Mr. Ingram are registered with the commission as lobbyists for 22 or so clients. And that brightly underscores the isolated nature of this mistake."
Lodge urged commissioners to ignore what he called "finger-wagging by the press" and to dismiss the case.
But Commissioner Keith Norman, who cast the lone vote against dropping the cases, noted that media reporting had been the "trigger" for the review of the lobbyist registrations. He argued that it would set a bad precedent to let the lobbyists off the hook after three years of failing to register.
Chairman James S. Stranch III said he heard nothing to indicate there had been any intentional effort to conceal that Ingram and Durham were lobbying on behalf of Hillsborough. He said it is sufficient that they have now filed their papers and paid their registration fees.
"My goal is transparency, to get things on the record, to make the disclosures so the public has access to it," he said. "They have done that."
Commissioners George P. Jaynes and Tammy S. White joined Stranch in voting to dismiss the case, while John Gregory Hardeman abstained due to his personal relationships with Ingram and Durham. The sixth position on the panel is vacant.