Fired worker: Free golf approved

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

As three men, fired from their state jobs at the Henry Horton State Park golf course, await a grievance hearing to reclaim their jobs, a seven-month-old political campaign document thickens the plot in this on-going labor dispute.

The men were dismissed after a long investigation, including a detailed audit. Among the better-known allegations are that golfers were allowed to play free, or at reduced charges, and that sometimes golf carts were made available at no charge.

Friday, the men could be told when their grievance hearings will be held, according to one of them who also said the donation of golf games to be sold at a political fundraiser was authorized by someone at department headquarters in Nashville.

Nancy Freeman of Holts Corner in northern Marshall County challenged County Clerk Daphne Fagan in the August 2010 general election. Fagan won. On July 16, Freeman filed a campaign financial disclosure statement reporting she received a donation, valued at $156, from the state-owned and operated golf course.

The four rounds of golf were sold at auction during the political candidate's fundraiser, Freeman said. "I didn't do very well with the auction," she said during a telephone interview Dec. 29. She had seen the state park's golf course as "a local business," so auctioning off the four rounds "was a way to promote their business."

Meg Lockhart, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the state agency that owns and operates Henry Horton State Park, was consulted on Dec. 21 about the legality of a state employee donating what amounts to state assets to a political campaign.

"It is absolutely against rules and regulations for a government entity to donate either cash or in-kind donations to a campaign for any reason at any time," Lockhart replied, "so this is an unauthorized donation.

"I checked with the acting golf manager (who also serves as the director of golf administration for state parks) and he said he was not aware of any contribution like this being made by the golf course - prior to the beginning of his full-time tenure there (which began Oct. 11) or after."

Rusty Jones, one of the three state workers employed by the state park at Chapel Hill, was reached Monday by telephone. Jones knows Freeman and said he spoke with her before the election about the donation of golf rounds at the state course.

"They were," donated, Jones said. "As far as I can remember, the request was sent in, and approved... It goes to the central office [to] the director of golf."

That office is "in the L&C Tower, I believe, downtown," in Nashville, Jones said. "We got requests, like, from several organizations for tournaments and charity events and things of that nature."

Asked if donating use of state services to a political campaign is different from a political campaign being helped by a private business or individual, Jones replied, "I guess it could be considered different. She was asking for a donation."

Jones has known Freeman and said "She contacted me and made the request and I gave it to my manager, and it went on up from there."

Jones' manager is Kerry Blanton who ran the golf course until he, Jones and Jim Linbaugh were dismissed by TDEC Commissioner Jim Fyke.

The three have exhausted their administrative appeals in TDEC and have filed grievances, thereby challenging Fyke's decision. The Tennessee Secretary of State's office includes administrative law judges who preside over grievance hearings.