MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Shelby County's public works director faces conflict of interest perceptions in the wake of his son's conviction and sentencing for computer fraud.
Tom Needham was in the courtroom when a federal judge sentenced his son Jason to 18 months in prison. Jason Needham admitted for two years, he hacked the computer network of his former employer, the Memphis-based Allen & Hoshall engineering firm. Evidence revealed he was attempting to gain a competitive edge on project bids for his engineering firm, HNA Engineering of Arlington, Tennessee.
The WMC Action News 5 Investigators have obtained documents that indicated his father has been conducting work for his son's engineering firm since its inception in 2013, while still in his public capacity as county public works director and during the period (2014-2016) in which his son admitted to hacking his former employer. Tom Needham has held Shelby County's public works directorship since 2010, when he left his position as president of Allen & Hoshall to enter public service.
"When I came to work for the county, I knew that there are ethics issues that you've got to deal with," Tom Needham said. "So I started dealing with them when I first walked into the door."
He's dealing with the potential ethics issue of consulting HNA Engineering while serving as Shelby County's supervisor of public engineering projects. According to a records request response from the Shelby County attorney's office, Needham "...has an approved Secondary Employment Verification form on file with Shelby County Government for consulting work on behalf of HNA," essentially giving him permission to serve as HNA Engineering's consultant.
Yet Needham has been carrying an HNA Engineering business card that identifies him as a company principal, not consultant. "When I went to work for them as a consultant, we decided that my salary would be zero," Needham said. "So Jason says, 'Well, Dad, then I need to give you some type of title,' and I said, 'Whatever you want to do, son, is fine with me.' So he thought 'principal' would be a nice title for me.
"I told Jason, 'Well, Jason, you know that since you're my son, you really can't do work for the county anyway,' so I don't really see any issue why I cannot. HNA Engineering has not applied for any project nor been on any team to do a project."
But we obtained a document, dated the current fiscal year, that showed Tom Needham himself submitted a Shelby County capital improvement plan proposal for Agricenter International's HVAC retrofitting and/or replacement. According to the document, Agricenter International retained the services of his son's HNA Engineering to assess the existing HVAC system after Needham submitted the plan. Agricenter International is a non-profit organization, but its construction projects and operations are overseen by the Agricenter Commission, an arm of Shelby County government. Needham is a member of the commission.
According to the Tennessee Rules of the State Board of Architectural & Engineering Examiners: "The (engineering) registrant shall not solicit or accept any contract from a governmental body on which the registrant, or a principal or officer of the registrant's organization, serves as a member."
Needham responded in the following exchange with WMC Action News 5 Chief Consumer Investigator Andy Wise:
(Tom Needham) "They went out independently and hired HNA to do the work."
(Andy Wise) "Your son's firm."
(Tom Needham) "Yeah, that would be my son, yes."
(Andy Wise) "You can see the irony in that, right?"
(Tom Needham) "I...the fact is, I had nothing to do with it. Didn't review it. Didn't see it. But found out about it once they hired him."
Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said "...the hiring of his son's firm where Mr. Needham presents himself as a principal would raise questions for anyone about self-dealing or an unfair advantage."
Assistant Shelby County Attorney Megan Smith, as a part of her response to our record request, replied the non-profit Agricenter International, not the county's Agricenter Commission, hired HNA Engineering. "The Agricenter Commission, on which Mr. Needham serves as an ex-officio member, does not approve or consider contracts in the nature of services provided by HNA Engineering...Notwithstanding the fact that he is identified as a principal, our understanding is that Mr. Needham serves as a consultant and has no ownership interest in HNA."
We also obtained a Shelby County Schools document, dated July 17, 2015. It is a letter of intent to award HNA Engineering a spot on the school district's rotating list "...for Professional Architecture & Engineering Services." The public school district awarded the position to the firm while Needham, still serving in his public position, was working for the firm and while his son was committing computer fraud.
Again, referencing the state board 's rules: "When in public service as a member, advisor or employee of a governmental body or department, the registrant shall not participate in considerations or actions with respect to services provided by the registrant or the registrant's organization in private professional practices."
"Shelby County Schools awards their contracts independently. I have no input whatsoever in their selections," replied Needham.
When we asked him if it is fair to characterize any of this as a conflict of interest, Needham answered, "None whatsoever. Because that's not me. I'm a Christian, first. I follow the rules that we have, second, and the good Lord tells me which way to go."
At his sentencing, Jason Needham announced he will forfeit his engineering license, effectively terminating his partnership with HNA Engineering before he heads to prison.