Oxford • Former Oxford Mayor Richard Howorth has been removed from the Tennessee Valley Authority board along with TVA chair Skip Thompson.
President Donald Trump made the move Monday after criticizing the federal-owned utility for hiring foreign workers. Thompson, of Decatur, Ala., was appointed to the post by Trump in 2018.
Trump also threatened to remove other board members if they continued to hire foreign labor.
Howorth, who owns Square Books in Oxford, said he found out Monday morning about two hours before the official announcement.
“On a personal level, it doesn’t bother me to be perfectly honest,” he said. “What I don’t like is the effect it might have on TVA. My term was about up; I would have been off at the end of the year, and technically, I would have been replaced in May had they replaced me. So, I was expendable, but I’m very upset that they fired Skip Thompson because he was an exceptionally good chair and a very valuable part of he authority at TVA.”
In his place, Trump nominated another Oxford businessman to the TVA board. Charles William “Bill”Cook Jr., was nominated to serve a five-year term.
Mississippi’s two GOP U.S. Senators, Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith recommended Cook for the post earlier this year.
“Bill Cook is a terrific choice for the TVA board and would represent our state well as the only Mississippian on the panel,” Wicker said. “Bill has built a successful career managing complex networks of data and information and advising businesses to help them grow and prosper. I know he will bring the same vision and leadership to this position, which is critical to economic development and reliable energy in our state.”
Cook has more than 30 years of experience in telecommunications networks and business. He is the CEO of Cook Consulting LLC, where he advises clients on telecommunications issues and provides guidance and insight to corporate executive teams. In 2012, Cook founded SummitIG, a telecommunications and data infrastructure company, and served as CEO until 2019.
Howorth joined the TVA board in 2011 after being appointed by President Obama and began his second term in December 2015. He was appointed TVA board chair in 2017. During his time on the board, he served on all of the board committees – External Relations, People and Performance, Nuclear Oversight, Finance, Rates and Portfolio and Audit, Risk and Regulation.
Howorth said he was disheartened to see the threats being made to other board members.
“It’s damaging to TVA and, bottom line, the people in the Valley who get their power from TVA,” he said. “I’m upset about that.”
The TVA is a federally owned corporation created in 1933 to provide flood control, electricity generation, fertilizer manufacturing and economic development to the Tennessee Valley. The region covers most of Tennessee and parts of Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky as well as small sections of Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.
Trump said the TVA board must immediately hire a new chief executive officer who “puts the interests of Americans first.” According to Trump, the CEO, Jeff Lyash, earns $8 million a year.
“The new CEO must be paid no more than $500,000 a year,” Trump said. “We want the TVA to take action on this immediately. ... Let this serve as a warning to any federally appointed board: If you betray American workers, you will hear two words: ‘You’re fired.’”
Trump said the authority was replacing many of its in-house technology workers with contractors who rely heavily on foreign workers under the H1-B visa program for highly skilled workers.
“All TVA employees are U.S. based citizens,” said authority public information officer Jim Hopson. “All jobs related to TVA’s Information Technology department must be performed in the U.S. by individuals who may legally work in this country.”
“As a federal corporation, TVA’s Board members serve at the pleasure of the President,” Hopson added.
As Trump was meeting with workers who would shortly be laid off by the authority, Trump was passed a note from chief of staff Mark Meadows that said Lyash had called the White House and was promising to address the labor concerns. Some of the attendees, who are set to see their last paycheck at the end of the month, teared up as Trump read the message.
Trump acknowledged that he was made aware of the issue after seeing a television ad produced by U.S. Tech Workers, a nonprofit that wants to limit visas given to foreign technology workers, that aired in prime time on Fox News.
The group, led by Kevin Lynn, criticized the TVA for furloughing its own workers and replacing them with contractors using foreign workers with H-1B visas. The ad, Lynn said, had an “audience of one,” aiming to persuade Trump to stop the TVA from outsourcing much of its information technology division.
Trump made the announcement as he signed an executive order to require all federal agencies to complete an internal audit to prove they are not replacing qualified American workers with people from other countries. The White House said the order will help prevent federal agencies from unfairly replacing American workers with lower cost foreign labor.
The order followed the TVA’s announcement that it would outsource 20% of its technology jobs to companies based in foreign countries. TVA’s action could cause more than 200 highly skilled American tech workers in Tennessee to lose their jobs to foreign workers hired on temporary work visas, according to the White House.
But Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said the TVA doesn’t get any taxpayer money. Commenting on the issue in April, Alexander said the White House was spreading misinformation. He said that TVA chief executive officers’ pay is lower than other large utilities and that TVA energy rates are among the lowest in the nation.
Howorth said he won’t fight for his job, as he serves at the will of the president. However, he said he’s disappointed that he can’t continue to serve.
“I just want to be sure that TVA is protected, and I’m not going to be able to do that because I’m not on the board,” he said. “I think there are good directors on the board; I don’t know how they’ll respond directly to this ultimatum that’s been given. But I know they’ll be smart about it and do the best they can for TVA. It’s just an unfortunate situation.”
Former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough Jr., who served as TVA chairman from 2001 to 2005, said “There’s one share of TVA stock. It’s held by the federal government. It’s best for TVA to earn the respect of President Trump and congressional leaders. That’s all.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.