Knox County Commissioners Bob Thomas and Charles Busler said they stand by their decisions to participate in the Knoxville News Sentinel Open, despite questions surfacing that their participation could be considered unethical.
The commissioners played in the pro-am tournament on August 16 with tickets fees provided free of charge by the PGA to Priority Ambulance. Additionally, participants in the tournament received a hospitality bag, which included a $500 voucher to be redeemed at the tournament's merchandise tent.
Five days later, Busler and other commissioners raised questions about the county's ambulance contract with American Medical Response (AMR) during a commission workshop.
On August 28, the commission voted 7-4 to approve a five-year contract extension. Busler and Thomas voted against the extension.
"I don't know all the facts of the case, certainly there's questions there," Knox County Commissioner and county mayoral candidate Brad Anders said. "What we know, it doesn't look great."
Both Thomas and Busler said their participation doesn't overstep ethical lines, and each gave specific reasons why they voted against extending the county's contract with AMR.
Thomas says he is concerned with the company's leadership after AMR was acquired by multinational private equity firm KKR & Co. for $2.4 billion.
"They can't raise rates here for a year, but they're going to cut costs," Thomas said. "I said we need to rewrite this contract for staffing requirements."
Thomas said he played in the group with tickets provided to Priority because he was asked by friends.
"I have friends that are involved in the tournament and that have supported the tournament for quite some time, and they all have asked me over the years to support it, put it on social media as a representative of all of Knox County," Thomas said. "There were no names saying that this was a Priority team first of all. They didn't pay for it. It was a slot the tournament gave them."
Busler also said that since the entry to the pro-am was comped by the tournament, not Priority, there was no conflict of interest.
"There was no cost," Busler said. "That's the big issue right here. They did not pay for those tickets, and everybody got the same goodie bag that had the same coupon in it. So there shouldn't be a conflict of interest, and it didn't come from a competing company to Rural Metro (AMR)."
Busler said he voted against renewing the contract for AMR only because of issues with billing.
Both Busler and Thomas compare the outing to the frequent dinners commissioners attend.
Thomas, who is also running for Knox County Mayor, said the situation is only getting attention because of the mayoral race.
"If anybody has any misconception or misrepresentation of what I've done, I apologize, but the facts that backed up my vote have nothing to do with gold or anything else, but what I'll have to do is just work harder to make sure they know the person I am," Thomas said. "Is there politics behind this? Absolutely. I'm a big boy. We'll move forward."
Thomas said to make sure there's no perception that he benefited from the $500 pro-shop voucher, he wrote a $500 check to the Red Cross for hurricane relief.