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Salaries Unknown for TVA's Influencers on MLGW Deal

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WKNO-FM/Christopher Blank
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As Memphis Light Gas and Water explores new power providers, the Tennessee Valley Authority hopes to hang on to its lucrative $1 billion-a-year energy contract. TVA even created a new Memphis-based vice presidency to sway the decision. But the power company offers scant details.

Mark Yates, TVA’s new VP, is a well-connected Memphis businessman and political operative whose wife runs a popular Memphis restaurant.

Her business partner sits on MLGW’s five-member board of commissioners, whose vote to stay with TVA is crucial.

So how much is Yates paid for these sorts of connections? TVA isn’t saying.

"The money is the public's money," says Dick Williams, an open-government advocate with Common Cause. "I don't see any reason why they shouldn't disclose that."

A TVA spokesman says Yates’ salary is confidential because the data could jeopardize its ability to compete for talent with private power companies like Duke and Entergy.

Deborah Fisher with watchdog group Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, isn’t buying it.

She calls it a "public relations problem."

By law, TVA releases compensation data for its CEO, Jeff Lyash. Fisher says the public is outraged by his $9.9 million salary. She says salaries for lesser TVA officials should be released, too.

Adam Marshall, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says TVA is using -- or misusing -- an obscure provision of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to withhold salary data. That exemption is based on pending pay studies. But once the salaries are awarded, "the entire reason behind this privilege evaporates."

For the record, the Institute has appealed the denial of the FOIA request and is awaiting another decision by TVA.

This story is a part of an ongoing collaboration between the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting and WKNO.