Tennessee lawmakers got a chance Tuesday to ask questions over a state contract that sparked allegations of cronyism. A growing deal to manage state office space went to contractor Jones Lang LaSalle, in which Governor Bill Haslam once held a stake before moving his investments to a blind trust.
Jones Lang LaSalle won a bid to help find ways to run state buildings more efficiently. Over time its role grew, and its price ballooned from $1 million to tens of millions, drawing questions from reporters. But the deal was intended from the start to grow when more funds became available, says Haslam’s chief of staff, Mark Cate.
Lawmakers quizzed Cate on details, down to the shrinking size of state office cubicles (reduced from seven by seven feet, prompting a need for smaller furniture). Committee Chairman Bill Ketron said the deal seemed legitimate, but should’ve been more transparent to the legislature.
“We’re operating within the four corners of the contract – everything’s legal and above board. However, the transparency I think was probably some of the issue that cast that shadow on members of the General Assembly and the committees, etc.”
Members both grumbled at and praised news media for pressing the matter.
The plan to consolidate state office space includes demolishing the Cordell Hull building near the capitol. Cate told lawmakers it will now get a second review from an outside firm.
Jones Lang LaSalle says it would cost tens of millions of dollars to renovate Cordell Hull office space, meaning it’d be cheaper just to tear it down. The decision drew fire from watchdogs, as well as historical groups who doubt the 60-year-old building is that decrepit.
So, Cate told lawmakers, they’ll take another look.
“We think it’s probably wise to have yet another set of eyes on this again. So we plan to go back and take all the numbers that have been done, take the assessment and the recommendations – is there another use for Cordell Hull? Could it be something else?”
Officials say they could get opinions from outside engineers, but haven’t yet set a timetable.
A Haslam aid notes the governor divested of his stake in JLL before shifting his portfolio into a blind trust, meaning any holding with the firm now is unknown even to him.