Couple raises conflict of interest questions in state agency - WSMV Channel 4

Couple raises conflict of interest questions in state agency

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A Channel 4 I-Team investigation raises questions about if a state contractors director and her live-in contractor boyfriend have found a loophole in a state conflict of interest policy.

The conflict of interest policy in the department of general services reads that state employees must disclose if their family members are trying to get state contracts.

Contractor Bill Edwards has received two state contracts in the department of general services since 2011, together worth more than $2 million in taxpayer money.

He lives with his girlfriend Susan Kimbro, director of contracts administration in the department of general services.

Kelly Smith, spokeswoman for the department of general services, said Kimbro is in charge of managing and monitoring existing construction contracts, but has no dealings with the contracts awarded to her boyfriend.

Because Kimbro and Edwards are not married, he does not meet the state's definition of a family member, and she did not have to declare him on her conflict of interest disclosures. Edwards was awarded the jobs after being the lowest bidder.

Edwards has received two contracts with Kimbro's agency since 2011, for repairs on the Clover Bottom developmental facility, and another for renovations at the Piedmont building. Edwards did put in a bid on another state project in 2010 with the department of general services but was not awarded the contract.

After the Channel 4 I-Team started asking questions, Smith said the department of general services reviewed all the contracts Edwards received and found no evidence of impropriety. But a government watchdog who reviewed the I-Team's findings said the relationship raises many questions.

"What's the difference between a live-in boyfriend and a husband?" asked Dick Williams of Tennessee Common Cause. "It's kind of a classic case of something inappropriate."

Less than two weeks after the Channel 4 I-Team started asking questions and filing open records requests with the state department of general services, Kimbro resigned without explanation. A few days later, she rescinded her resignation. She remains on the job.

After months of investigating and requesting interviews through repeated phone calls and emails, the Channel 4 I-Team went to Edwards and Kimbro's house to get answers.

When Edwards came home, he took one look at the I-Team's camera and pulled out and drove away.

Neither Edwards, Kimbro nor Kimbro's boss, Commissioner of the Department of General Services Stephen Cates, would agree to an on-camera interview.

Smith said Kimbro informed her current and previous bosses about her relationship with Edwards, even though there's no written documentation of Kimbro's admission.

The day after the Channel 4 I-Team starting asking questions, the agency's legal counsel documented in a memo that Kimbro had come to her and acknowledged the relationship, and had previously disclosed it to her supervisors.

Smith said Kimbro had nothing to do with Edwards receiving the contracts and is not involved with the contracts he received.

But through an open records request, the Channel 4 I-Team received several emails between Kimbro and Edwards discussing those contracts.

On Jan. 10, Kimbro sent Edwards an email with the subject line reading, "Clover Bottom project." In the email, Kimbro wrote, "Did I already tell you about the highlighted project?"

Edwards received the contract 10 days later.

In another email, Kimbro wrote, "Contract is not back yet from the AG's office. It's been there since Feb. 9. Not sure what the holdup is."

Two days later, she emailed Edwards and wrote, "I have your contract."

Edwards did send the Channel 4 I-Team an email statement, reading, "Before submitting any bids on state projects, my relationship with Susan Kimbro was disclosed to her superiors, in order to insure there was no perceived conflict of interest. There has been no financial benefit to Edwards Construction as a result of Susan Kimbro's employment with the state."

The Channel 4 I-Team also uncovered that Edwards was a state employee in the department of general services in 2009, and that's when an internal investigation revealed he was working for his private construction company on state time.

Those internal records show when Edwards was told he couldn't keep his state position if he kept operating his personal business, he resigned.

Copyright WSMV 2012 (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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