For 17 years, state employee Charles Burroughs ran a golf tournament held in conjunction with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s annual environmental conference.
He used his state email account to solicit sponsorships for the event from companies regulated by his employer, set up a website for golfers to register for the tournament, and paid expenses from a bank account established solely for this event. The arrangement worked well until this year, when the Tennessean newspaper ran a story highlighting all of the social interaction between regulators and the regulated at TDEC’s Environmental Show of the South. This year’s event, held in Chattanooga in May, included a pub crawl, a reception at the Tennessee Aquarium, and prizes ranging from 65-inch televisions to Tennessee whiskey. Then there was the golf tournament, which drew over 140 golfers.
Critics contended this conference was more of a party than an educational conference, and showed that TDEC is getting too cozy with the industries it is supposed to regulate.
When the Tennessean requested the emails that Burroughs had sent and received about the golf tournament, TDEC rejected the request, contending that the golf tournament was a private event that Burroughs was running on his own, not on behalf of the state, and therefore these emails are not covered by Tennessee’s open records law.
That argument was undercut by Burroughs himself in testimony June 19th before the House Government Operations Committee. Burroughs, who has worked for TDEC for 39 years, said he was asked by high-ranking TDEC officials in 2002 to manage the golf tournament after the state employee who had been running it retired. It’s not as if Burroughs was using state resources to freelance his own gig.
Burroughs was present at the hearing at the request of committee Chairman Martin Daniel (R-Knoxville), who also invited TDEC Commissioner David Salyers to testify. Greg Young, deputy commissioner of TDEC’s Bureau of Environment, also testified, noting that no state employee would be involved with the golf tournament in the future. He asked Daniel to not ask Burroughs any questions, saying that TDEC’s leadership “is taking ownership of these issues.” Daniel rejected that request.
TDEC’s effort to keep details about the golf tournament confidential smacks of a coverup to Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.
“It sounds like TDEC top officials intentionally asked their employee to set up an operation that would be run outside of TDEC’s finances,” Fisher said. “If they did this to avoid public scrutiny, it is shameful.”
Fisher thinks it’s clear that Burroughs’ emails are public records, especially now that they’ve been provided both to Daniel and Tennessee’s comptroller office, which is working with TDEC on an internal audit of the environmental conference and golf tournament. The problem, however, is that Tennessee’s open records law states that records related to audits are confidential. Daniel told this reporter that he’s “not at liberty” to release the emails.
Fisher hopes the emails will be made public when the audit is completed, which could be six months from now.
“If top TDEC officials asked a TDEC employee to run the golf tournament as part of the agency’s Show of the South conference, then I think there is no question that everything about the golf tournament should be made public immediately, and dispense with arguments about whether it meets the ‘public record’ definition or not,” Fisher said. “The public deserves to know how much was raised through company sponsors and the list of all government employees, including commissioners past and present, who played in the tournaments and the value of what they got in tournament gifts and prizes.”
The full conference schedule is embedded below.
Image by Tennessee State Parks