NASHVILLE (AP) – Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has been steadfast in his defense of a move in his first day in office last month to scuttle his predecessor's requirement for the governor and his senior staff to disclose the amount of their outside earnings.
The wording of the release and internal e-mails obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request indicate that senior advisers carefully planned the media strategy for informing the public about the decision.
The new governor had been heavily criticized by his Republican and Democratic opponents for refusing to disclose how much money he was paid from the family owned truck stop business, Pilot Flying J.
Haslam held an open house at the governor's mansion the day after his inauguration on Jan. 15. It was no accident that the release about three executive orders – including the one about disclosures – was released to the media late that afternoon after the event concluded and the governor could no longer be questioned about it by reporters.
"I do not want it to be out when there is media at the residence," Tom Griscom, the governor's chief communications adviser and formerly the Chattanooga Times Free Press editor and publisher, wrote in an e-mail to two other Haslam aides. "If he answers any questions, they should be light, tied to the first weekend, getting ready to go to work etc."
When the release was issued, it boasted of Haslam's "commitment to transparency and openness," but did not specifically spell out that it was lowering the disclosure standards set by former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.
The statement only said rules for top members of the executive branch would be the same as those set for state lawmakers. It left unsaid that officials would now only have to list their sources of outside income, but not how much they earn.
The governor has denied there was any attempt at gamesmanship, arguing that the disclosure issue was sufficiently hashed out during the governor's race and the new policy shouldn't come as a surprise.
Haslam said during the campaign that revealing his income from Pilot would reveal personal information about family members not running for office as well as proprietary information about the privately held company with annual revenues of about $20 billion.
Griscom in an interview this week echoed Haslam's statement.
"There were no surprises here," he said. "If anyone was surprised, they weren't paying attention during the campaign."
Griscom said the aim was to release the executive orders as soon as possible without getting in the way of the inauguration speech.
"We had always planned for it to come out the next day," he said. "It was the right time to do it, and the appropriate way to do it. We could have just done it and not put out a release."
Haslam, who has stressed transparency and open government principles in the executive branch, has nevertheless spent a good deal of his first weeks in office being questioned about the tone set by his disclosure decision, notably in a series of newspaper editorials around the state.
"Am I surprised my former colleagues have written the editorials they have? No," Griscom said. "But would I have done anything differently? No."
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