EDITOR’S NOTE: A deed filed in the county’s property records reveals Campbell County Mayor William Baird sold 55 acres of land in Elk Valley in 1993 to would-be coal-fly-ash landfill operators Ketchen Land Company for $5,000. The tract was one of the last hold outs in a series of land deals that solidified Ketchen’s retention of 3,000 acres in Elk Valley. The land deal between Baird and Ketchen was brokered by attorney Joe Coker, legal advisor to the Campbell County commission. Coker is also the registered agent for dump developer Ketchen Land Company. As part of the public’s right to know, the LaFollette Press has posted several property records — along with more than 30 documents and maps regarding land acquisitions and other insider information connected with the proposed coal-fly-ash dumpsite — on its website. We’ve made these documents accessible — at no charge — to both subscribers and non-subscribers. We’ll be adding other public records to this site as we acquire them, making them freely available to all. A Q&A interview with Baird and Coker also appears online. It aims to clarify some of the connections. More questions about the proposed coal-fly-ash dumpsite are expected to be answered at an upcoming county meeting, 6 p.m., Oct. 14 at the Campbell County Courthouse in Jacksboro. — Brent Schanding, editor
MAYOR WILLIAM BAIRD:
THE PRESS: Property records show you sold 55 acres to Ketchen Land Company in the 1990s for $5,000. It was one of the last hold outs in the area, which allowed Ketchen to retain 3,000 contiguous acres in Elk Valley. It appears that Joe Coker brokered the legal drafts for you. Why did you sell the land? Did you know Ketchen planned to construct a coal fly ash landfill then? And did you know Coker was also the registered agent for Ketchen?
BAIRD: I sold the 55 acres because I had cut timber on the property and no longer needed the property. I did not know Ketchen planned to construct a fly landfill then. I really did not know who Ketchen back then. I did not know Joe Coker was Ketchen’s registered agent.
THE PRESS: When you served in the State House of Representatives you sat on the conservation and environment committee. In 2008, eco-lobbyists “Tennessee Conservation Voters” ranked you as the “worst friend of the environment” in the House, based on votes you made that affected the environment. What do you think about the potential environmental impacts on the proposed ash landfill?
BAIRD: I do not believe there will be negative environmental [impacts] because EPA and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation guidelines are strict enough to prevent any environmental damage to groundwater and the surrounding area. They require adequate safeguards to be in place to protect the environment.
THE PRESS: Do you have vested financial or political interests in the proposed dump? Are you standing to personally gain from the deal? BAIRD: I do not have a vested financial or political interest in the coal ash landfill. I do not stand to gain personally from the deal. I do believe the county and the local community stands to gain from the company investing in the community, once the landfill is in place. The company will donate to the community’s schools, fire departments, local utilities, improve the roads and other worthwhile community projects.
COUNTY ATTORNEY JOE COKER:
THE PRESS: You have been county attorney since 1984 and helped draft several documents for Ketchen Land Company during that time. How far back does your relationship with Ketchen Land Company owners date?
COKER: I have done some types of legal work for Ketchen Land Company, Inc. since shortly after a court-ordered auction sale of the former property of Elk Valley Coal & Iron Company which occurred in early 1993. Several other lawyers have also done legal work for Ketchen Land Company, Inc. and Davis Creek Energy, LLC and Westbourne Lane Associates, LLC.
THE PRESS: Property deeds show you drafted documents to help William Baird sell 55 acres of land to Ketchen Land Company in the 1990s.
COKER: I actually did this deed work in 1993 for Ketchen Land Company, Inc., not Mr. William Baird. It is a quitclaim deed showing to be for 55 surface acres. At the time this quitclaim deed was made, Ketchen Land Company, Inc. already owned the mineral rights underlying this 55-acre surface through its purchase at the court-ordered auction sale. I have done many thousands of deeds and closings for purchases and sales of property. This was one of them.
THE PRESS: You also drafted documents for Ketchen to acquire nearly 3,000 acres in Elk Valley.
COKER: This was a deed I prepared as a result of a court-ordered auction sale of the former Elk Valley Coal & Iron Company property in early 1993. Ketchen Land Company was the high bidder at the court ordered auction sale. I was one of the attorneys in the court case where the former Elk Valley Coal & Iron Company property was sold at public auction and I prepared the deeds for the court from the auction sale.
THE PRESS: Records show you and/or your wife have personally incorporated at least 10 companies that now have land holdings in Elk Valley, around the site of the proposed dump
COKER: I cannot recall specifically how many companies I have incorporated which have land holdings in and around the Elk Valley area, but probably over time it has been more than 10 companies — only one of which, Vanguard Investment Properties, Inc., is a company in which I own an interest. No shareholder, officer, director or member of Ketchen Land Company, Inc., Davis Creek Energy, LLC or Westbourne Lane Associates , LLC is a present or former shareholder or holds has ever held any legal, equitable or beneficial interest in Vanguard Investment Properties, Inc. Over my career as a lawyer I have formed several hundred companies for clients. That is part of what I do as a lawyer. In many of these companies my name appears both as the incorporator and also as the registered agent and this is very common for attorneys who practice business law. It does not mean the incorporating attorney has any legal, equitable or beneficial interest in the companies or is a shareholder in the companies. Neither my wife nor I own or have ever owned any legal, equitable or beneficial interest in Ketchen Land Company, Inc., Davis Creek Energy, LLC, Westbourne Lane Associates, LLC, or any other company holding any land around the site of the proposed landfill or related to the proposed landfill in any way. We have no interest in the proposed landfill. I have seen no documents relating to the proposed landfill permit application, but based upon what has been said in the public meetings the proposed landfill is in the Westbourne or Davis Creek area and not in the Elk Valley area.
THE PRESS: How much have you received in legal fees and other exchanges from these land dealings?
COKER: I have received no legal fees or other exchanges related to the proposed landfill.
THE PRESS: As advisor to the county commission, you acknowledged your conflict of interest in providing legal counsel on the proposed coal fly ash site. If the conflict was so apparent, why did you continue to help draft deals for them?
COKER: I have drafted no documents and I have not provided any legal advice to Ketchen Land Company, Inc., Davis Creek Energy, LLC or Westbourne Lane Associates, LLC relative to the proposed landfill. If my name appears on any proposed landfill documents, I am unaware of such documents. I have never seen the proposed landfill permit application.
THE PRESS: Do you stand to gain anything from the ash dumpsite?
COKER: Nothing whatsoever in any way. I have no legal, equitable or beneficial interest in the proposed landfill and I have no agreement to receive anything of value from the proposed landfill. I have not been offered any such interest and would not accept such interest were it to be offered.
EDITOR’S NOTE: These interviews were conducted via email on Oct. 1.