For weeks now, folks all around our state have been wondering how Bob Corker made more money as Mayor of Chattanooga than he did in the previous 24 years combined as a business owner.
It now looks as though we have found one way he did it: he used his office for personal gain.
Case in point, the development of the Brainerd shopping center in Chattanooga.
The land in question there, had previously been put aside in perpetuity. It was never to be developed by anyone, as it was designated as an environmental wetland. And just in case anyone ever did try to develop it, the City of Chattanooga had the authority and the responsibility to prevent it from happening.
However, when the Brainerd development came about in 2003 , there were a couple of problems:
- The owner of the land was Bob Corker
- The Mayor of Chattanooga was Bob Corker
Ultimately, only one person stood between Bob Corker and $4.7 million and that was Bob Corker himself.
And as the record shows, when given the choice between doing his duty as Mayor and protecting the land and taking the money, Bob chose the money.
The Memphis Commercial Appeal has the whole story below:
Once a place where neighborhood kids caught bugs and hikers admired birds and wildflowers, this wooded nature preserve along South Chickamauga Creek now is littered with trash and overgrown with weed-choked trails.
Looking around last week, activist Sandy Kurtz blamed two sources: Wal-Mart and Bob Corker, a self-made millionaire who until last year was Chattanooga's mayor.
"I used to bring kids with school groups out here and do environmental programs to highlight the value of wetlands," said Kurtz, an environmental educator. "It's grown up now because our volunteers can't get to it anymore.''
Kurtz and other activists unsuccessfully fought plans by Corker's private companies for a now-thriving Wal-Mart Supercenter, built in 2003 in this protected watershed. Now, three years later, the controversy is roiling again, just as Corker heads toward the home stretch in his bid for Tennessee's open U.S. Senate seat.
A lawsuit by Kurtz that Corker's lawyers had succeeded in getting dismissed has been reinstated, and, just last week, a judge issued an order that keeps private some records connected to the suit.
The controversy is spinning off new allegations.
A Nashville lawyer pursuing Kurtz's suit says he's bothered by records that show how a Corker real estate company collected $4.6 million by selling the Wal-Mart land just weeks after Corker's public works administrator signed off on a construction easement.
Corker's actions rankle environmentalists who say he ignored them as mayor. They allege in a Hamilton County Chancery Court suit that the Wal-Mart construction ignored a pre-existing conservation easement, helping ruin the protected 7.8-acre nature area.
"What they did was outrageous. They just ran roughshod over this public property for private gain,'' said Joe Prochaska, an attorney representing Kurtz and the Tennessee Environmental Council.
The site was dedicated for public use in 1996 by a company Corker later bought.
He owned the company in 2003 at the time of the Wal-Mart development.
As mayor, Corker should have disclosed his interest in the property and the adjacent land where the Wal-Mart was built, Prochaska says.
"Why did he allow his monetary interest to trump his commitment to the people of Tennessee?'' the lawyer said.
Mitchell noted that the Wal-Mart controversy was well publicized in the Chattanooga press at the time, and it was understood Corker had an interest in the property.
He also questioned the timing of the revival of Wal-Mart controversy, which comes as Corker, the Republican nominee, faces Democrat Harold Ford Jr. of Memphis for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn).
The plans grew controversial in February 2003 when eventual Wal-Mart developers Bright Par 3 Associates submitted plans to build the 208,000-square-foot Supercenter and a 45,000-square-foot retail area in Chattanooga's Brainerd area near the confluence of Interstates 24 and 75.
Developers said the $20 million Wal-Mart project would create 500 jobs.
Yet, it drew quick opposition from environmentalists and neighborhood activists who complained to the City Council, delivered a petition to Mayor Corker's office and later picketed the store when it opened in May 2004.
Shortly after construction started in June 2003, the nonprofit Tennessee Environmental Council filed a complaint with Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, alleging the development was discharging pollutants into South Chickamauga Creek.
The regulatory agency found merit to the complaint and developers took corrective action to resolve it, said TDEC spokeswoman Dana Coleman.
The environmental group then filed suit and won a temporary restraining order to halt construction that July, but days later the suit was dismissed.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed that decision the following February -- a ruling affirmed by the state Supreme Court in October 2004.
By then the Wal-Mart was open for business. But with the suit refiled in Chancery Court, the litigants are now entering discovery.
Early on, the controversy included concerns over wetlands, but it's now focused on the nature area just north of the Wal-Mart.
Nature lovers had hiked and explored the site for years, but it was formally created in 1996 when East Ridge Development Co., a firm Corker bought in 1999, conveyed it as a conservation easement to the City of Chattanooga.
Records show East Ridge dedicated the conservation easement to be "retained forever in its scenic, recreational and open space condition..."
The easement grants certain rights to the city, including allowing public access and the construction of trails, while prohibiting construction, timbering or other development.
Although the appeals court found that the precise boundaries of the conservation easement are unclear, the environmental council's suit alleges the developers ignored the easement and that the Wal-Mart construction extended into it.
Specifically, Prochaska said a new road built to the store obliterated a gravel parking lot once used by nature lovers to access the conservation area. Dig-and-fill operations also created a steep slope further limiting access while runoff has left the site in an overgrown, unusable condition, he said.
The suit, which names Bright Par 3, the City of Chattanooga, the Corker Group, Osborne and others as defendants, seeks restoration of the conservation easement and unspecified money damages.
Prochaska said he's also concerned about the new road, Greenway View Drive, which started as a construction access easement granted by Corker's administration.
Records show Corker's public works administrator, William C. McDonald, signed the access easement, that ran through the conservation area. Prochaska said the road curved east to avoid an office parking lot owned then by Corker, and consequently ran though and destroyed the gravel parking lot used by nature lovers.
Still, plans in 2001 before Corker was mayor show the proposed road in the same alignment. Regardless, Roger Dickson, a lawyer for the Corker Group, said the conservation easement gave developers the right to cross it.
"To now come in and say it was something horrible and somebody did something sneaky is just not true," Dickson said.
May 1, 1996: A company later bought by Bob Corker grants a conservation easement to the City of Chattanooga. The easement from East Ridge Development Co. dedicates 7.8 acres of woods along South Chickamauga Creek to be "retained forever in its scenic, recreational and open space condition...''
April 16, 2001: Corker is sworn in as Chattanooga mayor.
Feb. 14, 2003: Developers of a planned Wal-Mart Supercenter submit plans to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. The planned store and strip mall are adjacent to protected area and also affect nearby wetlands.
June 17, 2003: Mayor Corker's public works administrator, William C. McDonald, gives the Wal-Mart developers rights to run construction vehicles across city land along the path of as-yet unbuilt Greenway View Drive. Environmentalists allege the easement ruins access to the dedicated nature area.
July 1, 2003: With the construction access easement in place, a second Corker company, Osborne Building Corp., sells land adjacent to the nature area to Wal-Mart developers for $4.66 million.
July 7, 2003: The Tennessee Environmental Council and activist Sandy Kurtz sue and win a temporary restraining order to block developers.
July 15, 2003: Hamilton County Chancellor Howell N. Peoples dismisses Kurtz's suit, finding she has no standing to bring the action.
Feb. 6, 2004: The Tennessee Court of Appeals in Knoxville reverses Judge People's decision, finding that any Tennessee resident has standing to enforce such an easement.
May 19, 2004: The 208,000-square-foot Wal-Mart opens for business, employing 470 people.
Oct. 4, 2004: The Tennessee Supreme Court denies permission to appeal requested by the Corker Group and Wal-Mart developers Bright Par 3 Associates.
April 11, 2005: Kurtz and the environmental council re-file suit, this time adding the City of Chattanooga as a defendant.
Aug. 14, 2006: Judge Peoples grants a protective order, sealing confidential business information obtained in discovery from public disclosure.
Do we really want another U.S. Senator who uses his position of power for personal gain? I don't.
It's time for a new generation of leadership that puts the people's interest ahead of their own.
Just say no to Bob Corker!