Court setback for Corker in Tenn. environmental lawsuit

Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, whose Senate race against Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) has become a dead heat in recent polls, faced another setback yesterday when a county court declined to put off his deposition in a controversial Wal-Mart-related lawsuit until after the election.

Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, whose Senate race against Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) has become a dead heat in recent polls, faced another setback yesterday when a county court declined to put off his deposition in a controversial Wal-Mart-related lawsuit until after the election.

The suit deals with a nature preserve that environmental groups say was ruined during development of a Wal-Mart store on land sold by a company owned by Corker. His lawyers had sought to postpone his testimony until after November, and his campaign accused Ford and local Democrats of politicizing the case. But the court granted only a two-day delay.

“While it’s not ideal to take time away from the campaign trail during the early-voting portion of a nationally watched election, [Corker] looks forward to having the opportunity to set the record straight,” Corker political director Todd Womack said, adding that Corker’s deposition “will demonstrate once again that this case is without merit and being driven by a desperate Ford campaign that can’t seem to find an issue on which to attack Bob.”

Corker was sworn in as Chattanooga mayor in 2001, more than a year after the city and his Osborne Building Corp. began negotiations on the use of a plot of creek-side land protected for recreational use by a conservation easement. Corker owned the company that had donated the nature preserve as well as the company that sold an adjacent plot to Wal-Mart for $4.66 million in 2003.

Environmental groups fought to block construction of the Wal-Mart, arguing that the addition of a paved Wal-Mart access road to the conserved land violated the easement. The state Supreme Court overturned an initial ruling in Corker’s favor, and weeks after he vanquished former Reps. Ed Bryant (Tenn.) and Van Hilleary (Tenn.) in a hard-fought GOP primary to succeed retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R), Corker’s lawyers were back in court petitioning to seal certain case documents.

Some Tennesseans have questioned the Democratic political ties of Nashville attorney Joe Prochaska, who represents the environmental groups, fuelling the Corker campaign’s protestations that the lawsuit is politically motivated. Prochaska, in an interview, said Corker’s lawyers dictated the election-year timing of the appeal.

“They gave nothing back to the people of Tennessee for that nature preserve and did it all so they could sell the land for $4.66 million. I’m missing where Democratic and Republican comes into any of that,” Prochaska said. “Every citizen of Tennessee has the right to complain about what the Corker defendants did.”

Prochaska said he has not donated to Ford’s campaign and declined to say whether he planned to vote for the Democrat, who closed within one percentage point of Corker in a Rasmussen poll of likely voters released Thursday. A Wall Street Journal poll last week found Ford down three points, halving Corker’s lead since early August.

Corker’s counsel, from the law firm Miller & Martin, did not return a request for comment yesterday. Miller & Martin employees have given $39,250 to Corker’s Senate campaign, making the firm his second-largest campaign contributor, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“This lawsuit has been around long before this Senate race,” Ford campaign senior advisor Michael Powell said. “If it is a frivolous lawsuit, why did they go to court to try to seal the proceedings? Why did they try to quash this subpoena?”

Ford also questioned Corker’s attempt to postpone his deposition in a brief interview last week. “When Bill Clinton was president, he still had to answer questions about Paula Jones,” Ford said.

The suit unites two popular fronts in Democrats’ battle to win one or both chambers this fall: highlighting Republican ethical missteps and the GOP’s close relationship with Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer and a favorite target of organized labor. Wal-Mart’s PAC favors Republicans over Democrats in its giving by a 70-30 ratio, yet Ford was one of several Democratic Senate hopefuls on its list and the company’s lobbying lineup includes a former Ford chief of staff.

“Election-year politics shouldn’t stand in the way of transparent government,” said Nu Wexler, spokesman for the union-backed Wal-Mart Watch. “Wal-Mart and Bob Corker built a store on protected wetlands, and Tennessee voters deserve to know the full story before Election Day.”

Corker’s testimony will almost certainly draw voter attention in the run-up to Nov. 7, when the candidates prefer to control the message, said Vanderbilt University political scientist Bruce Oppenheimer.

“Part of the problem they have had is, you don’t want your campaign being distracted by other things,” Oppenheimer said, noting a handful of issues last month that forced the Corker campaign to play defense. “There were stories about him not wanting to show his full income tax returns, there were stories about whether he was going to be willing to debate or not … and the fact that he went off media for three weeks” after his primary win.

Corker has released summaries of his income tax returns, while Ford has supplied his full records and lambasted the former mayor for not responding to an invitation to debate on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Corker’s campaign agreed to three statewide debates and has since restarted running TV ads, though neither candidate’s spots refer to the Wal-Mart suit.

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