By Steve Hunley
The Knoxville News-Sentinel is no stranger to hypocrisy; no indeed, the Sentinel and hypocrisy are on intimate terms. The story published in the Sentinel last Saturday attacking Commissioners Charles Busler and Bob Thomas reached new heights of hypocrisy.

The Sentinel story attempted to taint Commissioners Busler and Thomas with the brush of scandal, asserting they somehow committed what amounts to an ethics violation when they accepted a $500 gift card at a golf tournament sponsored by none other than the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

The logic used in the story was not merely convoluted, but utterly twisted. To properly understand it, one must go to the root of the Sentinel’s angst, which was the battle over extending the Knox County ambulance provider contract with American Medical Response (AMR).

Now stay with me, I promise it gets better.

AMR wanted its contract extended a year early, while Priority cried foul and wanted the opportunity to bid on the contract. The county commission ended up voting 7-4 to extend AMR’s (formerly Rural/Metro) contract a year early without putting the contract out for bid. You might ask why. Well, evidently, there is a $2.4 billion sale pending of Envision Health Care Corporation which owns AMR. Obviously any contracts that could be extended early, without bids, could increase AMR’s value.

Commissioner Charles Busler has consistently scrutinized AMR as he has persistently stuck up for constituents who have had problems with the ambulance provider. Busler has called into question some practices that he believes might be violations of the contract between Knox County and AMR. Bob Thomas, like Busler, voted against extending AMR’s contract citing concerns about AMR’s pending sale. Again, this begs the question of what was the rush, a year in advance, to renew the ambulance contract. It also begs the question of how in the world it would hurt anyone or anything by simply putting the contract out for bid. Coming to the root of the matter, evidently the Sentinel simply didn’t like the way Commissioners Busler and Thomas voted. This was payback, pure and simple; vote against the establishment and for “We The People” and get popped by the Sentinel.

Trust me, folks, this is not some far-fetched conspiracy theory on my part. First of all, this is the Sentinel’s golf tournament. Second, the Sentinel had to approve of the gift cards. Third, the Sentinel had to know who was playing in its own golf tournament. Fourth, numerous elected officials have played in the Sentinel’s golf tournament over the last twenty years and have received gift cards. Why now? Why single out Busler and Thomas? Why, after all these years, does the Sentinel have a problem with gift cards? I can tell you why. The establishment which the Sentinel is certainly a part of, wants to control every county commission vote they can. In this instance they wanted to do an end around, one year early extension exclusive contract for AMR without putting it out for bids.

The gift cards in question do deserve explanation. The cards can only be redeemed at the site of the tournament; it’s not like the recipient can purchase goods at Neiman-Marcus or the Dollar General Store for that matter. But as I said, over the years virtually every elected official in Knox County were the recipients of gift cards and/or goodie bags for playing in golf tournaments to benefit a particular cause or charity. I feel pretty sure the higher-ups at the News-Sentinel have been recipients of similar gift cards and goodie bags for playing in this and other tournaments. Are we to presume those gift cards somehow affected their editorial policies?

The Sentinel self-righteously cited Knox County’s ethics policy, after the fact. Why did the Sentinel simply not ban the practice of giving gift cards to participants in its own tournament in the first place? Buried in the Sentinel story is a reference to the county’s ethics policy: “The code goes on to say that voting members shouldn’t accept gifts from companies looking to obtain business with the county.”  The irrefutable fact is Priority did not give out the gift cards. The Sentinel’s golf tournament did. Many entities and organizations, including charities, routinely host events for the commissioners who either hope to do business with the county, or to receive or increase an appropriation of taxpayer dollars. For instance, the Chamber of Commerce receives something like a million dollars annually from the county government, which of course must be approved by the commission.

The Chamber is constantly hosting high-dollar events, shrimp boils and the like, all of which have a dollar value. While those events certainly attract Chamber members, those same members can network with invited local officials. It is precisely because the Chamber wants to keep and grow the appropriation they receive from Knox County that these folks are invited.

If anything, Knox County’s ethics policy should be amended to state that every agency and entity receiving taxpayer dollars should be required to publicly list the cost of events where commissioners are invited. Any entity receiving an appropriation or wanting an appropriation should be required to do the same thing. Events where goodie bags are distributed should be scrutinized as well and the contents of those bags made public.

The notion Charles Busler or Bob Thomas voted for Priority or anyone else is just not true; they voted not to extend AMR’s existing contract a year in advance for another six years. Busler and Thomas objected to the contract being voted on early and without taking bids. Even had AMR’s contract not been renewed, there was no guarantee Priority would have been the beneficiary. Bids would have been taken, the mayor would have made a recommendation and the commissioners would have voted. It was entirely conceivable AMR could have once again won the contract. The difference is it would have all been done out in the open and the process transparent.

This was merely an example of fake news and were the Sentinel truly serious about being simon-pure, it would have banned gift cards entirely. Yet the Sentinel’s golf tournament was about what every golf tournament is about: making money for some particular cause and most will take anybody’s money. I don’t know of a single charity golf tournament that doesn’t gift something to participants to show their appreciation. Perhaps the Sentinel, having invited members of the Knox County Commission to play in the tournament, should have banned any county vendor or department from participating in the tournament. But then there would have been no story at all.