Just months after the Knox County Commission unanimously signed off on an evaluation of the county's ambulance contract, six commissioners accepted $500 campaign donations from a private company that ended up bidding for the next deal.
The contributions were made in March and April by Global Medical Response, which owns American Medical Response. The company currently provides ambulance service for Knox County. It won the recommendation of a panel appointed by County Mayor Glenn Jacobs for the next contract over three other companies.
The County Commission must approve the deal with American Medical Response, commonly called AMR. The emergency services provider has come under sharp criticism from residents and Knoxville firefighters and police for its poor response times. Commissioners are set to vote on the deal Nov. 20.
Commission Chair Terry Hill and Commissioners Courtney Durrett, Kim Frazier, Rhonda Lee, Dasha Lundy and Gina Oster all reported the donation in their July campaign finance disclosures. It was the only donation in the January through June reporting period for all of the commissioners except Hill, who reported other donations in addition to the $500 contribution from AMR's parent company.
AMR's proposed contract needs six votes from the 11-member commission to win approval.
Hill told Knox News the donation does not influence her vote "in the least" and that her integrity speaks for itself.
"It just is what it is, and if you want to examine campaign contributions from day one from every candidate from dog catcher to president, you’ll probably find something,” she said.
Knox County’s ethics policy says voting members shouldn’t accept gifts from companies trying to obtain business with the county, but also says "campaign or political contributions that are received and reported in accordance with state law" are not considered anything of value.
The county's selection committee, which did not include commissioners, chose AMR over the other providers in October. Commissioners must approve or reject the proposal. They cannot alter it. If commissioners vote down the AMR proposal, the entire bidding process will start over.
The ticking clock on the current contract makes it difficult for commissioners to reject the deal. A new request for bids that follows the same process would stretch months past the end of the current contract on Jan. 31, and there's no guarantee the county could extend AMR's service while it considers other offers.
If AMR's bid is not approved and the company bails at the end of the current deal, it's highly unlikely the county could arrange ambulance service to take AMR's place beginning Feb. 1.
Of the six commissioners who took the donation, only Durrett and Hill are up for reelection in 2024. Lundy decided in October not to run again.
Durrett said the donation doesn't change her decision-making process.
"I am not one where my vote can be bought," she told Knox News. "I see it as more support for an already hard job. … That is not a purchase of a vote, in no shape or form.”
Frazier told Knox News she's disciplined, and her constituents know she "can't be bought."
"It doesn't impact the way I'm approaching this at all," she said.
Oster said she knows her job is to be fair, and that money isn't a factor.
"My decision is never made on who gives me money or who doesn't give me money," she said. "My job is to be as neutral as I can be and do what's best for our community."
Lee said she hadn't even thought about the donation.
"(The donation) is not even part of the equation. ... Absolutely not," she told Knox News.
Lundy echoed her colleagues, saying that the donation won't influence her vote.
"It's $500. It doesn't change the world," Lundy told Knox News.
Commissioners Richie Beeler, Carson Dailey, Larsen Jay, and John Schoonmaker told Knox News the ambulance provider did not offer them a campaign donation this year. All four declined to comment about the donations to other commissioners.
Commissioner Kyle Ward could not be reached for comment.
AMR has struggled
The vote comes as AMR has struggled mightily to keep up with demand, to the point where the delays prompted Knoxville police spokesman Scott Erland to tell Knox News in October "there’s no guarantee an ambulance will show up quickly or at all."
The delays are caused by some factors that are out of AMR's control, including understaffed emergency medical service systems and hospitals.
Emergency rooms are overwhelmed by people using them as primary care, forcing ambulances to wait with patients because AMR policy does not allow them to leave patients until a hospital has taken over care.
At the same time, hospitals are struggling to attract and retain health care workers.
Episode mirrors commissioners’ $500 gift cards in 2017
The last time the commission considered the county ambulance contract, Commissioners Charles Busler and Bob Thomas (who was running for county mayor) accepted $500 gift cards from Priority Ambulance and played on the company's golf team in the News Sentinel Open. The two ended up voting for Priority over AMR, which ended up winning the bid on a 7-4 vote.
The Knox County Ethics Committee later found there was not enough evidence to prove Busler and Thomas were influenced by the gift cards, which were given to every participant in the golf outing.
Oster was a member of the ethics committee at the time.
Tyler Whetstone is an investigative reporter focused on accountability journalism. Connect with Tyler by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on X, formally known as Twitter @tyler_whetstone.
Allie Feinberg reports on politics for Knox News. Email her at email@example.com. Follow her on X, formally known as Twitter @allie.feinberg.
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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Knox County commissioners took $500 donations from ambulance provider