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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Devolution in Tennessee

Distorted charges fly in Republican Senate primary; pay-raise nonsense and tax-cheat silliness.


Senate candidate Bob Corker accuses two rivals of voting to raise their own pay while in the House, but in fact Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant repeatedly voted against raises.

Bryant fires back with a charge that Corker failed to pay his taxes, when in fact businessman Corker paid millions, sometimes voluntarily giving the government more than he owed.


Tennessee’s GOP Senate primary pits wealthy businessman (and former Chattanooga mayor) Corker against former House members Hilleary and Bryant. It’s a bitter race marked by factual distortions. The winner of the Aug. 3 vote likely will face Democratic Rep. Harold Ford in November for the seat being vacated by Republican Senate Leader Bill Frist.

Bob Corker Ad:
“The Twins”

Announcer: They’re like twins, Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant. Congressmen who voted to allow illegal immigration to become a crisis, stood by as spending skyrocketed, but voted to raise their own pay, and then became registered lobbyists.

Bob Corker gets things done to control spending, keep taxes low, fix immigration. The choice is yours.

Ineffective career politicians or a successful businessman and Mayor. Bob Corker for Senate.

Corker: I’m Bob Corker and I approve this message.

Voted to Raise Their Own Pay?

A Corker ad that started airing July 18 says the other two “voted to raise their own pay,” a grossly misleading claim. In fact, both men voted against pay increases every time they had a clean shot.

Annual raises for House and Senate members have been automatic since 1989, unless blocked by a vote of Congress. During the eight years that Hilleary and Bryant served in the House (Jan. 3, 1995 – Jan. 3, 2003) pay raises were blocked three times, for the fiscal years 1996, 1997, and 1999. Both men voted against the pay raises on each occasion.

FY 1996: On Sept. 8, 1995 Democratic Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin moved on the House floor to instruct House conferees on an appropriations bill to, in his words, “accept the Senate amendment numbered 130, which in essence indicates that the congressional pay will be frozen for yet another year.” The motion passed 387 – 31, House conferees did as instructed, and the Congressional pay freeze became law for fiscal year 1996, which started Oct. 1 1995.

FY 1997: Hilleary and Bryant also voted to block the next annual pay raise. On July 16, 1996 they both voted for an amendment offered by Republican Rep. Jack Metcalf of Washington, to freeze Congressional pay for a second straight year. It passed 352 – 67 and later became law for fiscal year 1997.

FY 1999: In June 1998 an appropriations bill (H.R. 4104) came out of committee containing another pay freeze for Congress. Both Hilleary and Bryant voted on July 16 against an amendment offered by Democratic Rep. Bill Hefner of North Carolina that would have stripped out the ban and allowed the pay raise to take effect. The vote was 79 – 442, so the move to restore the pay raise failed.

Corker’s campaign manager Ben Mitchell defends the pay-raise allegation. He argues that because Hilleary and Bryant at times voted for appropriations bills that didn’t contain a pay-raise ban, they effectively voted to increase their pay. We find that logic faulty, to put matters charitably. Others have been more blunt. The Nashville Tennessean said in an editorial July 27 that the pay-raise claim was “not true” and that Corker’s ad “should have been removed immediately.” It said Corker was “creating a character issue” by refusing to withdraw the ad and admit that it was deceptive. Earlier, on July 23, the editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel called  the ad a “lie” on the same day that the newspaper endorsed Corker for the GOP nomination. In a signed opinion column editor Jack McElroy called Corker a “likeable guy,” then added: “But, the truth be told, his recent campaign ad does tell a lie. . . . Only by the most twisted manipulation of facts – and certainly not with a straight face – can that [pay raise] assertion be made.”

Ed Bryant Ad:
“Tired of Bob Corker’s Lies”

Announcer: The press calls Bob Corker’s attack on Ed Bryant ‘a lie’. Corker’s even lying about himself. Claims to be the best mayor ever, but raised taxes, increased spending and avoided paying his taxes. Promised he or his subcontractors never hired illegal aliens, but Corker got caught with illegal aliens working on his construction site. Tired of Bob Corker’s lies? Vote for Conservative Ed Bryant. He’ll cut taxes. And control our border.”

Bryant: I’m Ed Bryant and I approve this message.

Avoided Paying His Taxes?

Bryant released an ad on July 26 attacking “Bob Corker’s lies,” but also making an unfounded attack on Corker. It said Corker “avoided paying his taxes.” In fact, there’s no evidence that Corker illegally evaded taxes, cut any ethical corners or paid one dime less than he owed.

Corker, a wealthy building contractor with real-estate holdings, has released a one-page summary of his federal income-tax payments over 29 years. He also allowed a reporter for the Knoxville News Sentinel, Tom Humphrey, to review copies of the basic form 1040 filed jointly by himself and his wife covering those years. In a story June 30, Humphrey noted no discrepancies between the public summary and the figures filed on the form 1040’s. Also, in 1994, Corker released his income tax returns for the years 1976 through 1993 while in the midst of a heated primary run against Frist, who went on to win. No discrepancies were noted at that time and his taxes did not become an issue.

Corker has not released detailed tax schedules showing business gains and losses and other specific deductions for any of the years in question. The full returns may or may not contain questionable deductions, but no evidence of that has yet appeared. Bryant bases his attack on Corker’s own press release, which actually says Corker paid a total of $4.6 million in federal income taxes over the years, or about 23 per cent of his adjusted gross income.

The Bryant ad refers to the fact that Corker showed “no tax due” for 1985 and 1989, years in which his adjusted gross income showed a loss. When Corker released returns in 1994 the Memphis Commercial Appeal  reported that the reason Corker had no taxable income in those years was due to what the newspaper described as “depreciations, tax credits and deferrals,” which are common in the real-estate business. Corker states that  he voluntarily paid a total of $13,500 for those years to the Bureau of the National Debt – so he actually paid the government more than he owed. The 1994 Commercial Appeal account says that Corker produced letters from the Bureau of the National Debt acknowledging the payments.

We can’t see how anyone can “avoid” paying taxes they don’t owe. Unless Bryant can produce evidence that Corker actually owed income taxes for the two years when he shows he owed none, then we must judge his ad to be false.


Watch Corker Ad: “The Twins”

Watch Bryant Ad: “Tired of Bob Corker’s Lies”

Supporting Documents

View April 14 press release listing Corker tax payments


“Misleading ad does no credit to Corker’s effort, By sticking with the ad, Corker is creating a character issue,”  editorial, Nashville Tennessean 27 July 2006.

Jack McElroy, “Civic dialogue suffers with negative ads ,” Knoxville News Sentinel, 23 July 2006.

Tom Humphrey, “Taxing question on Corker; Opponents wonder why Corker won’t release detailed forms,” Knoxville News Sentinel, 30 June 2006.

“Corker releases tax returns,” Memphis Commercial Appeal: 23 June 1994: B8.