In recent months, local bureaucrats have held their tonguesand their breathwhile Metro Finance Director David Manning probes their departmental budgets for fiscal excess and irresponsibility. But a brouhaha involving accusations of personal threats and scare tactics may signal the start of a Manning backlash.
Larry Ashworth and Leighton Bush, two prominent members of Metro’s Employee Benefit Board and its related investment committee, are claiming that Manning has conducted an organized campaign of intimidation against officials who don’t support his initiatives. No stranger to controversy, the Benefit Board administers pension, health care, and disability payments to past and present Metro employees. That board members now are bickering with Manning isn’t reassuring to the nearly 20,000 employees and pensioners.
”In my opinion, David Manning is a dinosaur,“ says board member Larry Ashworth, who was appointed by former Mayor Phil Bredesen. ”He’s from the slash-and-burn days. But you just don’t go in and roll over people anymore.“
Replies Manning, ”Obviously we disagree about some important investments, but I don’t know why he would make those accusations other than the fact that we just disagree.“
The skirmish has been brewing since last September, when Mayor Bill Purcell appointed Manning as finance director, a position that gave him an automatic spot on the Benefit Board and its four-member investment committee. Almost from the beginning, Manning and Ashworth clashed, specifically over the board’s arrangement with the Paine Webber brokerage firm.
Manning claims that the board’s relationship with Paine Webber is an inherent conflict of interest since the firm advises the board on investments, then earns a commission for trading the board’s stock. Manning suggests that Paine Webber’s double-duty inhibits the firm from offering independent financial advice.
Ashworth, who chairs the investment committee, deflects criticism of the board’s investment fund by noting that its 29-percent return is among the nation’s highest.
The two haven’t engaged in the loftiest of debates. At one meeting after Manning lectured his fellow board members, Ashworth, a scrappy East Nashville native and practicing personal-injury attorney, told him, ”We didn’t just get off the turnip truck.“
Last week, Ashworth escalated the disagreement into a knock-down, drag-out alley fight. During the meeting, Manning succeeded in dumping the board’s long-term fund manager. Afterward, Ashworth distributed a set of notes suggesting that he and other board members were victims of intimidation.
”In the last couple of days, several of us have been threatened that our reputations and careers would be ruined and that our families would be embarrassed if we failed to do what we were told,“ the document stated.
In an interview with the Scene, Ashworth wouldn’t say whether Manning was behind the threats. But he might as well have said it. Talking about Manning, he said, ”I don’t think it helps to try to intimidate people.“
Ashworth was especially infuriated at a recent opinion from the Metro Legal Department that helped Manning’s cause. The Legal Department ruled that the city’s contract with Paine Webber isn’t valid. Ashworth says the opinion makes no sense since representatives from the Legal Department were present at the Benefit Board meeting when the original contract was signed.
”When that opinion came out, this was my first indication that these people are going to try to make good on their threats,“ he says.
Mayoral aide Patrick Willard told The Tennessean that the administration has no idea what Ashworth is talking about. But Manning himself does admit that he made a few phone calls to people close to the board about their upcoming vote on the Paine Webber contract. One of those calls was to Joe Huddleston, the former Metro finance director and friend to both Manning and Ashworth.
But that’s about as far it went, he says. Manning insists he didn’t make any threats. ”I talked to several people in which my consistent message is we need to follow the advice of Metro Legal,“ he says.
At last week’s meeting, Ashworth also distributed a Chancery Court order regarding Xantus Health Plan to the board. What does that have to do with anything? Initially, some benefit board members wondered the same, until they realized that this was yet another attempt to embarrass Manning, who was appointed by the state last year to preside over the troubled health plan. In her opinion, Chancellor Carol McCoy blasts the administrators, including Manning, for their $30,000-a-month consulting fees.
Asked why he thought Ashworth distributed the court papers, Manning replied, ”All I could assume was that he was angry at me and thought there were some negative comments about me in the court papers.“
Although he hasn’t launched a similar counteroffensive, board member Leighton Bush, who runs his own insurance company, claims that he too has been subject to an intimidation campaign. ”A good friend of mine received a call that said the same thing,“ he says referring to Ashworth’s account. ”And they’re willing to testify to it.“
Again, while Bush would not name Manning as the culprit, he made it fairly clear what he thought. ”David Manning has an agenda to slash and burn and get rid of everybody that’s there.“
And why does Manning want to do that? Bush says Manning wants to control the city’s $1.5 billion pension fund. And while Manning himself can’t touch that money, ”his friends can touch it or he can put it in whatever bank he wants,“ Bush says.
Bush didn’t name these mysterious friends, and Manning scoffs at Bush’s suggestion. About the fund, Manning says, ”Without question Mayor Purcell and myself have one thing in mind and that’s what’s in the best interests of Nashville and the employees and the taxpayers. We have no preconceived notion of who should be involved in this process except that it be done in accordance with the best practices available to us.“
While Manning isn’t the most popular figure in local political circles, few people think he’d try to intimidate a Metro board member. ”As heavy handed as Manning can be, it is inconceivable that he can be behind these phone calls,“ one elected official says. ”This is not a life-or-death issue.“
Adds Phyllis West, a longtime member of the Benefit Board, about her colleagues: ”I don’t think they have dealt with a David Manning or Bill Snodgrass (newly appointed board member and ally of Manning) beforemen of their caliber who have profound government experience.“
There’s an interesting aside, however: This year, Snodgrass replaced Lady Jackson not long after she voted against Manning to alter the board’s investment portfolio. A vice president at American General, Jackson said publicly that she simply did not have time to devote to the Benefit Board and transferred to the city’s less demanding Greenway’s Commission. Bush, who says Manning strongarmed former Benefit Board Director Jim Luther out of his job, claims Jackson was also pushed out. ”She works for a big company and did not want any bad publicity,“ Bush says. ”Larry and I don’t care. We work for ourselves, and we can defend ourselves.“ Manning might actually agree with them on that one.
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