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Ben R. Wagner has become the new Inspector General of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a position open for five years during two U.S. presidencies, and is in the process of learning the priorities of the office that is a watchdog of the agency.
Wagner was sworn in June 6 in Knoxville at the Baker U.S. Courthouse by U.S. District Judge Katherine Cryzter, who was nominated by former president Donald Trump for the position in 2020 until a judicial vacancy opened up and she was confirmed for it instead. Wagner’s office is in the TVA Towers, and he will attend TVA board meetings on a regular basis, as schedules allow, a spokeswoman said.
The U.S. Senate approved his nomination by President Joe Biden by voice vote on May 26. Wagner applied for the position through the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), the spokeswoman said.
Wagner is no stranger to the TVA Inspector General’s office, having worked 31 years in the office of the 38 years he was employed by TVA. Prior to retiring in 2017, he held several senior executive positions, including Deputy Inspector General, where he led audits, evaluations, investigations and administrative functions, his official biography says.
“I believe TVA has a critical mission to serve the 10 million people in the Tennessee Valley,” he said in response to a question about why he came out of retirement to return to work. “The TVA Office of Inspector’s mission is to provide independent oversight across the breadth of risks faced by TVA. Our work is vital to helping TVA become more effective and efficient, and detect and prevent fraud, waste and abuse. I care about TVA and the OIG and believe I can add continued value to help them advance in their missions.”
He was not available for an interview on Friday but answered several questions from this columnist by email.
For the past five years, the office was run by Deputy Inspector General Jill Matthews after Richard W. Moore left in 2017 to become U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama. Knox News reported in 2020 there was some controversy within TVA over Matthews, as acting Inspector General, being paid more than the Inspector General position paid.
Wagner said he has some catching up to do.
”My focus over the next several weeks is to meet with TVA leadership, TVA Board members and other stakeholders to understand their issues and concerns. From their input, plus the perspective provided by the OIG team, I hope to better understand how the OIG can best serve in our independent oversight role. Jill Matthews has done a great job as the acting IG and I look forward to, once again, working with her and the experienced and dedicated professionals on our team,” he said.
He was asked if the office has some priorities that he could discuss.
“As I stated, I am listening and learning to understand the priorities,” Wagner said.
Wagner was born in New Mexico and moved with the family to the Tennessee Valley region as a child. He has a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Tennessee.
In another TVA development, President Biden has nominated two more people for the TVA Board of Directors, bringing the number now awaiting confirmation by the U.S. Senate to five.
On June 3, he nominated Adam Wade “Wade” White, Lyon County judge executive in Kentucky, and William J. “Bill” Renick, a former Ashland, Mississippi, mayor and chairman of the Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi.
A hearing was held April 6 by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Beth Pritchard Geer of Brentwood, Tennessee; Robert P. Klein of Memphis, and L. Michelle Moore of Richmond, Virginia, but no further action has been taken.
There is one more vacancy on the nine-member board to be filled.
FREE ADVICE TO DEMOCRATS: Democrats were told by former U.S. Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama that it’s essential to vote, but he also warned it’s important for the Democratic Party get back to the middle on issues so that extremists don’t scare people away.
“We’ve let the most extreme voices in the party be the loudest — those few who say supporting socialism or defunding the police is the only way to be a good Democrat — which lets Republicans brand the whole party that way,” Jones said at the annual Truman Day Dinner. “Of course, that rhetoric is far less dangerous than what’s coming from the right — but it does weaken our ability to build that big tent, to reach back out to many of the voters we’ve lost over the past few decades.”
Jones was the main speaker at the dinner sponsored by the Knox County Democratic Party on June 10 at the Knoxville Hilton. The event had been postponed twice, once because of COVID and another time to accommodate Jones’ schedule.
Jones was in the Senate 2018-21 after a special election, the first Democrat elected to the position in 25 years. He lost in 2020 to Republican Tommy Tuberville, a former football coach. Previously Jones was a U.S. attorney known for taking on the Ku Klux Klan and bringing justice after 40 years for four Black girls killed in a 1963 bombing of their church in Birmingham.
More recently, he helped shepherd the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court to become the first African American woman to serve. During the process, Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., asked Brown Jackson to provide a definition for the word “woman.” Brown Jackson answered, “I’m not a biologist,” for which she was chided by Blackburn, national news services reported.
Jones made a reference to the exchange, which reflects the current state of gender politics in the U.S., a potential topic for the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Show Marsha Blackburn a picture of Judge Jackson,” he said, adding, "This is a definition of a woman.”
Jones spoke without charging a fee. In fact, he came and went by a private plane out of New Orleans, where he had been speaking to attorneys, said Fred Metz, vice mayor of the Maryville City Council and a childhood friend. Metz provided transportation for Jones to and from Downtown Island Home Airport.
“I can’t remember when we weren’t best friends,” Metz said Tuesday. They attended the same high school, were roommates at the University of Alabama, and in each other’s weddings. And they’re pretty much aligned politically, he said.
“Coming from a conservative state, he and I have always had the same bent, moderate Democrat or moderate Independent. He doesn’t toe the Democratic Party (line) hook, line and sinker,” Metz said.
Jones followed several other speakers, including Knoxville Vice Mayor Andrew Roberto, who said Democrats “are not the fringe” made out by others. He asked a litany of rhetorical questions, including how people are going to get back to shopping without being afraid, or sending their children back to school safely, to which the crowd answered, “Vote!”
Debbie Helsley, Democratic nominee for Knox County mayor, also spoke to the “vote” theme in her uphill battle against incumbent Republican Mayor Glenn Jacobs. She said traditionally, 70% of registered voters skip the August general election, and if they would vote, “we can win.”
Matt Shears, county party chairman, estimated some 400 people attended with about $60,000 raised.
County general elections are Aug. 4, the same day as state and federal primaries.
POLITICAL NOTE: Democrat Sarah Keith has been endorsed by former U.S. Attorney John Gill in her bid to unseat Sessions Court Judge Chuck Cerny, a Republican, in the Aug. 4 election. Gill, a Republican who also was a special counsel in the District Attorney General’s office, said Keith “has the skills and temperament to make her the kind of principled, unbiased judge upon which Knox Countians can rely.” Keith formerly worked in the Attorney General’s office but had to resign when she decided to run against an incumbent.
Georgiana Vines is retired News Sentinel associate editor. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: TVA Inspector General named after five-year vacancy