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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis


Rare Recusal: MLGW Commissioner Abstains From Vote

Entangled in a separate controversy, Carlee McCullough abstains from contract vote on consent agenda

Facing an historic decision, ethics is a heightened focus at Memphis Light, Gas & Water. (Daily Memphian file photo)

Mired in controversy over a perceived conflict of interest, Memphis Light, Gas & Water Commissioner Carlee McCullough took the unusual step on Wednesday, Feb. 16, of recusing herself from voting on a consent item.

McCullough abstained from voting on a proposed $398,000 contract with Griffin & Strong Attorneys and Public Policy Consultants to conduct a disparity study at MLGW.

McCullough, an attorney, disclosed during the board of commissioners meeting that she had previously worked with Griffin & Strong “on another matter’’ and would abstain from voting on the item “just to be cautious.”

Carlee McCullough

MLGW records on recusals weren’t immediately available, but good government advocates said such a recusal on a consent agenda matter is rare.

The development follows stories by the Institute for Public Service Reporting on a separate controversy involving McCullough’s ties to a vice president at the Tennessee Valley Authority.

“You know the old saying is sunshine is the best disinfectant,’’ said Dick Williams, chairman of Common Cause Tennessee, a nonpartisan group that promotes ethics and transparency in government.

“It might be at least a reflection that they’re thinking more about those issues now. And that would be a good thing.’’

McCullough, 53, did not respond to messages left through her email, cell phone and law office.

The Institute reported earlier this month that McCullough operates a popular restaurant, Mahogany Memphis, with the wife of TVA regional vice president Mark Yates. To help shore up relations here, TVA created the Memphis-based vice presidency last year — and hired Yates to fill it — months after the MLGW board first voted to contract with a Georgia firm to oversee bidding from alternative power suppliers that might replace TVA as Memphis’s exclusive supplier of electricity.

The loss of the MLGW contract could cost TVA $1 billion a year in revenue.

Vocal TVA critic Jim Gilliland contends McCullough has a conflict of interest and should have recused herself last March when she voted for MLGW President J.T. Young’s unsuccessful proposal to indefinitely suspend the search for bidders and begin negotiating with TVA for better rates.

An independent review by The Institute found no evidence McCullough was under any explicit obligation to disclose her business association with Veronica Yates then or that she has violated any state or local conflict-of-interest regulations.

Government ethics experts told The Institute, however, that McCullough’s ties to the Yateses pose an appearance of partiality and that she should fully disclose her involvement with the couple. The information is needed to determine if any conflict exists, the experts said.

“None of this should be in the dark,’’ said Richard W. Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and former chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush.

The matter before the MLGW board on Wednesday involves a proposed contract with Griffin & Strong, an Atlanta-based consulting firm specializing in equity issues.

“We design and implement legally defensible programs for race and gender equity,’’ the firm says on its website.

The contract to perform a disparity study passed on a 3-0 vote and will now goes to City Council. McCullough abstained from voting.

The contract had been listed on MLGW’s consent agenda, a collection of contracts and resolutions considered non-controversial. Following McCullough’s disclosure, the item was pulled from the consent agenda and approved on a separate vote.

Though McCullough said she’d worked with Griffin & Strong on another matter, she did not provide details.

Records show Griffin & Strong teamed with McCullough’s firm, The McCullough Law Group, to perform a disparity study in 2016 for the city of Memphis. Online city records indicate Griffin & Strong received $425,000 for the study, which found a widening gap between city contracts received by white-owned firms and those received by women- and minority-owned firms.

According to the report, The McCullough Law Group’s participation in the contract included reviewing purchasing practices and procedures.

McCullough served as the city of Memphis’ contract compliance officer responsible for diversity programs from 2000 to 2012.

Griffin & Strong CEO Rodney K. Strong did not immediately respond to a message left Wednesday at his Atlanta office.

This story first appeared at under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.

Written By

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and political reporting.

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