The relationship that exists between U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, the firm AkinsCrisp Public Strategies, the Tennessee Valley Corridor and its affiliated businesses appears to thrive on congressional earmarks, according to an examination of public records.
During his time in Congress, Wamp, who is a Republican candidate for governor, has directed millions of public dollars to companies associated with the TVC, an economic development tool he helped create in East Tennessee.
Some of those companies give money back to the TVC in the form of business-summit sponsorships. In turn, the TVC has given close to half of that money — some $2 million — to the public relations firm AkinsCrisp, which draws $9,000 a month from the Wamp campaign. The firm’s principals are senior advisers to Wamp, and the congressman has received some $1 million in campaign contributions via his connections with the TVC, AkinsCrisp and the Oak Ridge business community.
“The original goal of the Tennessee Valley Corridor was to parlay these federal facilities in Huntsville and Oak Ridge into private sector investments through technology transfer and new manufacturing opportunities,” Laura Condeluci, Wamp’s congressional spokeswoman, wrote in an email reply to questions submitted by The City Paper.
In 2008, Wamp obtained a federal earmark of $2.8 million for Adaptive Methods, a surveillance technology company and major supplier to the U.S. Navy. The company, based in Centreville, Va., opened its Chattanooga office in 2005; Wamp is pictured at the ribbon-cutting ceremony in a photograph on the company’s website.
TVC chairman Doug Fisher — a former district director for Wamp — told The City Paper that the company was an ideal example of his organization’s recruitment efforts.
Asked about this earmark, Condeluci wrote, “Adaptive Methods made a formal request, indicating the support of the U.S. Navy, and we followed up and worked closely with the Navy on this project.” Neither the Department of Defense — in its budget proposal — nor any other member of Congress requested the earmark.
“The Navy is modernizing its national war-fighting capabilities, and is developing the planning tools for its anti-submarine warfare technology transition,” she wrote. “Rep. Wamp requested federal funding be directed to the Navy to help meet this mission need. After fully consulting with Naval Research, he supported the Navy’s use of technology developed by Adaptive Methods, a company in the Tennessee Valley, working on a sonar system at its Chattanooga-based facility.”
Tight relationships bring funds
Some other Wamp earmarks raise similar questions.
Lincoln Memorial University is a private, four-year school in Harrogate, Tenn., with an undergraduate enrollment of approximately 2,000 students. The school maintains a contract for services — which may include lobbying — with AkinsCrisp.
In 2008, Lincoln Memorial’s College of Osteopathic Medicine received an earmark of $478,000 for curriculum development. The next year, the university received another $433,000 for facilities and equipment.
In an emailed response, Condeluci said the university was on track for accreditation with the American Osteopathic Association and wanted federal funding to beef up its program. The next year’s earmark, she wrote, was for a nurse anesthetists program.
The City Paper asked whether Wamp’s requests for the earmarks originated with anyone at AkinsCrisp; Wamp’s office did not deny there was a connection.
“We have worked closely with Lincoln Memorial University and over the years have personally met many times with its officials,” Condeluci wrote. “The initial mention of this request came from the LMU board of directors in a conversation with Rep. Wamp.”
In 2001, a $1 million federal appropriation was approved to make possible a 2,400-acre wildlife preserve at Mount Aetna in Chattanooga, near the Cummings Cove residential community and golf development. Another $500,000 in federal funds went to the North Chickamauga Creek Trust for payment for land purchases and easements along that scenic gorge.
Wamp was given credit for securing the appropriations; shortly thereafter, he moved into the development.
Some locals have criticized the deal, charging that the government vastly overpaid for the land and the sizable tax breaks given to the Cummings Cove developer.
Just last week, The Chattanoogan reported that an Atlanta-based development specialist is suing the Cummings Cove ownership group for failing to pay for work he did on the project.
A corporate congress
Gerald Boyd is manager of the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge office. In that capacity, Boyd appointed longtime Wamp confidant Darrell Akins to the DOE’s Oak Ridge Site Specific Advisory Board, a citizen panel that advises the agency on environmental issues.
The appointment came in part because of Akins’ relationship with Wamp, although the congressman’s office said they did not encourage the appointment. But the appointment was enveloped in controversy, as it came just three months after Akins’ business partner and developer Mike Ross was publicly cited for illegally strip-mining coal at the “environmentally friendly” development Ross and Akins had promoted.
Akins and Ross go back many years. Both natives of Maryville, they share a private skybox suite at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. Akins has served as a primary public relations and marketing operative for many of Ross’ developments.
Billed as an “environmentally sensitive” development, Rarity Mountain on Norris Lake met scrutiny when the federal Office of Surface Mining fined Ross for illegally strip-mining the location for the development’s golf course. Around the same time, he was also fined numerous times for clean water violations at other developments by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
Recently, Ross filed for bankruptcy on multiple properties within Rarity Mountain, just two days before a foreclosure auction. Akins has been identified by local elected officials as Ross’ “business partner” in that project.
But there is more than just a curious appointment.
In 2005, Boyd proudly proclaimed in a Department of Energy newsletter that a company called LeGacy-Critique had been awarded a $27 million contract to provide administrative support services for “Oak Ridge offices and offices under the purview of Oak Ridge.”
The newsletter also refers to the company as a Brentwood-based, woman-owned small business. According to the release, Chiquita Young is president of the “joint-venture” company.
Not mentioned in the newsletter is that the Critique half of the company is registered to Chad Mee, another DOE contractor who serves as labor relations manager for WSI Inc., also known as Wackenhut. Mee is registered as the agent for the company with the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office.
Critique lists its principal office in New Orleans, which it shares with another joint venture known as REDE-Critique, which is also a joint venture corporation that, like LeGacy-Critique, is a federal contractor providing support services.
What do Critique and WSI Inc. have in common?
AkinsCrisp represents both companies, and Darrell Akins sits on an advisory board of the agency that funds them. Akins is not a registered lobbyist at the state or federal level, so any contact he has or has had with Wamp or any other member of Congress on behalf of a client could be subject to inquiry.
Wamp’s office said that they had no dealings or relationship with LeGacy-Critique, but add that they “have often and always met directly with Wackenhut — both company officials and union representatives — on national security issues, federal orders, funding levels and union-related federal issues.”
Against his party
In 2009, Wamp was second on the list of most money requested through earmarks by Tennessee’s congressional delegation. First was Memphis Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen.
Wamp had 22 requests for almost $44 million. In most cases, Wamp was the only person requesting the funds. In contrast, dozens of other members requested earmarks with Cohen — who asked for more than $108 million. It is typical for multiple members of Congress to request the same earmarks.
For the same time period, the nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste reported that Nashville area members of Congress such as Marsha Blackburn and Jim Cooper requested no earmarks. Rep. Bart Gordon requested funding for 14 projects totaling $6.4 million.
In 2010, Republican members of Congress, led by Blackburn and House Minority Leader John Boehner, placed a moratorium on earmarks submitted by GOP members. Multiple sources who were granted anonymity because of their proximity to the congressman told The City Paper that in a closed-door meeting of the Republican House caucus, Wamp spoke passionately against the moratorium. He did not prevail.
Boehner is now touting a recently released Harvard study on the impact of earmarks. It says, in part, “Public spending appears to increase demand for state-specific factors of production and thereby compels firms to downsize and invest elsewhere.” The study goes on to say, “We also find evidence that the effects are most pronounced in sectors that are the target of earmark spending.”
“Rep. Wamp has been a leader in earmark reform and bringing honesty, integrity and openness to how America’s tax dollars are spent,” Condeluci wrote in an emailed response. “There are projects in the 3rd District that have a clear federal role, like Chickamauga Lock, and he makes no apologies for seeking funding for them.
He receives numerous requests each year but reduces his list to those from elected officials and the ‘nuts and bolts’ of Tennessee priorities to create more jobs for more Tennessee families.”