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By Phil Williams Chief Investigative Reporter
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- NewsChannel 5 Investigates has uncovered even more questions about how the Nashville Electric Service spends your money. We found big salaries, big cars and big hotel bills -- all charged to ratepayers at the Metro-owned utility.
"You can look all over the city, all over this country, people are hurting," NES President Decosta Jenkins told Metro Council members last year, assuring him that he felt people's pain.
At the same time, our investigation discovered, Jenkins was charging ratepayers for stays in the nicest hotels (the Waldorf=Astoria, almost $500 a night), dinners in the most exclusive restaurants (Manhattan's Bouley Restaurant, $213 for three), not to mention alcoholic "refreshments" and his hotel movies.
"Tells me that they don't care about the actual people," said customer Stephen Gawiak.
But what surprised some customers the most was the NES president's salary.
Customer Doug Trimble said, "I'd be afraid to guess. 150 (thousand dollars)?"
In fact, Jenkins's salary is $315,000 a year. That's more than twice what the mayor makes. It's gone up $34,000 since the economic downturn, and he's due for another raise.
"No way!" Trimble exclaimed.
On top of that, when he goes golfing or on other personal errands, he doesn't have to take his own car. That's because NES gives him a Chevrolet Tahoe -- and lets him fill up as often as he likes at the utility gas pumps. He has to calculate his personal mileage each year, which is reported to the Internal Revenue Service as income.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked NES spokesperson Tim Hill, "With someone who's so well paid, why does he need a take-home vehicle?"
"Well," Hill answered, "technically, he's considered on-call 24/7."
Hill said it's all a reflection of what the NES Board, which is appointed by the mayor, thinks Jenkins is worth.
They also give a $600-a-month car allowance to eight vice presidents under Jenkins.
"When we look at salaries, we compare ourselves to other utilities, basically because that's who we have to compete with for the people to come to work here," Hill said.
Which brings us back to Jenkins' questionable travel and entertainment expenses.
"If he makes that kind of money, let him pay for it out of his pocket," Doug Trimble said.
Over and over, the NES president offered the same excuse for some of his spending: "That was an oversight."
But, just like the NES Board approves the president's salary, they also approve his expenses.
In some cases, our investigation discovered, board members were there with him, eating the food and drinking the drinks, then letting him use ratepayer money to pick up the tab.
"My question is how can they get by with that, how can this happen?" asked customer Tabitha Gordon.
It turns out that then NES Chair Mary Jo Price signed off on Jenkins' expense reports, then she submitted some questionable claims herself.
On a trip to Toronto, even though her meals were already paid, she billed ratepayers for two room-service breakfasts -- one for $48, the second for $44. And on a trip to Washington, she went the weekend before a conference, charging ratepayers for her hotel for two extra days at $319 a night.
Her vice-chair, Richard Courtney, approved her expenses.
Courtney, now the chairman, says that was, again, "an oversight."
"Everything's an oversight," Stephen Gawiak said. "It's like a legitimate excuse, you know. My oversight -- oh, man, I couldn't make that money, you're going to come cut my power off -- Where's my oversight, you know? It's just not fair."
While NES officials now say they'll pay back any questionable expenses that we caught, one ratepayer says they ought to do more.
"Someone needs to get into trouble for this," Gawiak concluded.
NES does have auditors who look each year to make sure all the numbers add up.
Plus, the agency has an internal auditor whose job it is to dig deeper. But she reports to the people who -- in this case -- are doing the spending.
Metro also has auditors, but it's been more than a decade since they took a hard look at NES.