campaign finance

Top TN donor to Trump inauguration a longtime Democrat?

President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee reports raising more than $107 million for January swearing-in events, more than double the amount raised for any previous president’s inauguration. Prior presidents put limits on inaugural donations. Trump did not.

Nationally, the top donor was casino magnate and philanthropist Sheldon G. Adelson with a $5 million contribution, reports the New York Times. The biggest donation from Tennessee was $1 million sent by a Chattanooga company linked to veteran Democratic donor Franklin Haney.

Excerpt from the Center for Public Integrity’s review of the disclosure:

A few of the big-dollar donors listed were obscure limited liability companies, the leaders of which weren’t easily deciphered.

One such Trump inauguration donor, HFNWA LLC of Chattanooga, Tennessee, gave $1 million. The Center for Public Integrity previously reported that HFNWA LLC gave Democratic super PAC Senate Majority PAC $1 million in 2014. HFNWA LLC has addresses in Arkansas and Washington, D.C., and is managed, according to Arkansas Secretary of State records, by Franklin L. Haney, a Democratic political patron and real estate mogul.

Memphis-based Federal Express chipped in just over $500,000, according to the disclosure document. If you add things up, as did Nashville Post Politics, there was an overall like donation from the Knoxville-based Haslam family and its business operations.

Combined, Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam and his wife, television CEO Dee Haslam, contributed $200,000. Pilot itself donated $300,000 to the effort. Gov. Bill Haslam, brother to Jimmy Haslam and a fellow heir to the Pilot fortune, was notably non-supportive of Trump during the campaign, going so far as to call on Trump to step aside during the last month of the campaign.

CCA of Tennessee gave $250,000.

Note: If you want to wade through the full report, it’s HERE.

House panel backs audits of all campaigns spending more than $175K

A House committee voted Tuesday to require audits of all future legislative campaigns that involve spending more than $175,000 – a figure that would catch almost all Senate campaigns but few in the House.

The House Local Government Committee approved the provision in an amendment offered by the panel’s chairman, Rep. Timothy Wirgau, R-Buchannan, who is also sponsor of the bill (HB992). The amendment and the overall bill were approved on voice vote after brief discussion, including questioning of Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance.

As approved in Senate committee, the bill would increase the number of random audits conducted by the Registry of Election Finance. Currently, the Registry selects 2 percent of legislative campaigns for random audits; the bill would raise that to 4 percent. That part remains in the House version with the $175,000 provision as an extra.

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On collecting excess PAC money, then voting to raise limits

Senate State and Local Government Chairman Ken Yager, who recently voted to double the amount of money senators can receive from political action committees, broke the existing limit last year and had to refund $60,000 in excess donations, reports The Tennessean.

“I found out about it when I was notified that I exceeded the aggregate limit by the Registry of Election Finance and returned it promptly upon learning about it,” Yager, R-Kingston, said in a statement to the USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee.

After refunding the money, Yager joined more than 30 other legislators in setting up his own leadership PAC, known as KEYPAC.

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More legislator campaign spending: 3 bought passports, 10 paid family

In separate articles – latest in a series on state legislator campaign expenditures – The Tennessean reports on lawmakers paying family members and buying passports with political donor money.

Three legislators — Sens. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, and Rep. Jay Reedy, R-Erin —  spent a combined total of $621 in campaign money for passports last year. That article is HERE.

Ten House lawmakers used campaign funds to pay family members a combined total of $8,600 in 2016, according to the second article, HERE. An excerpt:

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Senators vote for accepting more campaign money

The state Senate has amended a House campaign finance bill to double the campaign cash that individual donors, special interest political action committees and political parties can give senators during their four-year terms, reports the Times-Free Press.

The bill (HB16) began as a House GOP effort to let representatives and senators create a loophole in the state’s long-standing in-session ban on fundraising and sought to let members raise political money during veto-override sessions.

But in committee, senators added a provision allowing their contribution limits to reset every two years, instead of every four years as the law has long directed.

Sen. Ken Yager, chairman of the Senate State and Local Government Committee who handled the bill on the floor, said in response to Yarbro’s questions that the issue was “parity” (with members of the House, whose limits are already reset every two years).

With Yarbro noting that the bill would effectively raise the total caps on all PAC money from the current $236,200 in a four-year campaign cycle to $472,400 and political party money from $126,000 per cycle to $252,000, Yager referred other questions to Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown.

Southerland offered the justification that senators have three times the residents in their districts as House members.

On legislators, a private club, a PAC and ‘a peculiar circle’

The private club and the political action committee operated by The Standard, an upscale Nashville restaurant located near the state Capitol, have been giving and receiving money from state legislator campaign funds, reports The Tennessean. And sometimes there’s “a peculiar circle of payments.”

Twenty-five Republican state legislators and Nashville’s Democratic District Attorney, Glen Funk, are members of the private club and collectively they have paid about $150,000 from their political campaign accounts to the restaurant and club since it was founded in 2009. About $50,000 of that went to pay for private club memberships.

Standard Club PAC, meanwhile, has donated about $100,000 to campaigns of people who are members or who frequent the club, the newspaper says. An excerpt:

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On ‘double dipping’ legislators & a Barney Fife impersonator

Tennessean reporters Joel Ebert and Dave Boucher sorted through campaign account spending by 131 legislators last year and packaged the findings into two Sunday stories:

A “double dipping” report declaring that “dozens” of legislators spent money from their political funds that appear to coincide with legislative work days when they also get paid an automatic “per diem” expense allowance by the state — $198 last year, increased to $204 this year for those living more than 50 miles from Nashville. The expenditures were for things like food and gas. The per diem payment specifically includes the cost of meals and gas would presumably be covered by the 47 cents per mile legislators get for driving to and from the Capitol.

There was another $189,700 in total unitemized spending “that may have been paid for by state funds”   on per diem days. State law lets legislators report spending of less than $100 without giving specific dates and locations where the money went.

A listing of some interesting expenditures – top billing given to former Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey paying a Barney Fife impersonator $1,000 to appear at a party after Ramsey announced he would not seek reelection. He also paid $1,400 to an Abraham Lincoln impersonator appearing at a farewell event following last year’s legislative session.

Among other examples: Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, spent $346 on “meals and entertainment” in a visit to UT Knoxville on the first day of football practice; Rep. Jimmy Eldridge, R-Jackson, spent $137 on a wedding gift; Rep. Harold Love, D-Nashville, a minister by profession, had $2,500 in unitemized expenses that included travel to two church conferences; and Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, spent “more than $16,000 of campaign money to pay for car washes, vehicle registration tags, SiriusXM Radio fees, oil changes, Christmas gifts, MTSU basketball tickets and an alumni membership to MTSU.”

Earlier this year, an audit of former Rep. Jeremy Durham’s campaign finance account by Registry of Election Finance found 690 possible violations of state laws, including about $7,000 that suggested “double dipping” on per diem days.

“There needs to be some way to review current practices and see if it’s a repeated problem or one or two people out there,” Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday.

“I tend to think when you have more than a couple of examples of something that feels like it needs to be reviewed, then it is time to take an overall look at how things are working.”

Blackburn a star in Internet privacy debate

Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn got national attention for her leading role in the U.S. House’s approval of a bill widely characterized as repealing existing Internet privacy protections, including Friday some data-crunching on campaign finances by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican and vocal proponent of killing the rule, said this week that allowing the FTC and FCC to regulate different parts of the internet will “create confusion within the Internet ecosystem and end up harming consumers.”

Critics of that view say it’s hard to see how stronger protection of consumer privacy will hurt those consumers. In addition, ISPs “provide an essential service,” said Laura Moy, a visiting law professor at Georgetown University and expert on technology and the law — and many Americans have little or no choice about their providers. “Maybe the answer is to regulate everyone more closely.”

… We took a look at the contributions received by members of the House and Senate from the telecom industry.

Here’s what we found: On the House side, while there wasn’t a huge difference in overall funds received by lawmakers voting for or against the resolution, there was a gap in the Republican vote. GOP lawmakers who voted to quash the rule received an average of $138,000 from the industry over the course of their careers.

The 15 Republicans voting nay? They got just $77,000… Blackburn has received close to $564,000 from the telecom industry over the course of her House career.

As noted by the Nashville Scene, Late Show host Steven Colbert lampooned Blackburn a bit over the matter:

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Judge rules against Registry in PAC case

An administrative law judge has ruled that Williamson Strong, a citizen group that got involved in Williamson County school board elections, is not a political action committee, reports the Nashville Scene. That’s contrary to a decision of the state Registry of Election Finance board.

Judge Michael Begley in his 16-page order found that the group’s payment of website fees did not constitute political action and that they “effectively acted as a media organization with respect to the 2014 election cycle. [Williamson Strong] published news stories, commentaries or editorials periodically. … The Registry provided insufficient evidence to rebut Williamson Strong’s contention that it fell within the media exception.” The judge also found that there was no express advocacy for candidates by the group.

Formed in 2014 to encourage public participation in typically low voter turnout in school board elections, Williamson Strong maintains a website and Facebook page and its members frequently tweet from education events. Williamson Strong never raised or donated money for a political candidate.

Following the complaints of ultra-conservative school board member Susan Curlee, who has since resigned and left the county, the Registry began investigating Williamson Strong in late 2014. The Registry fined Williamson Strong $5,000 for, among other things, spending money to point out the relationship between candidates for the school board, including Curlee, were endorsed by the far-right 912 Project.

…The Registry has 15 days to file a response to Begley’s order. Their next public hearing is on April 12.

Note: Text of the ruling is posted HERE.

Bill restricting campaign money investment goes to governor

The House gave unanimous approval Monday evening to a bill to put new restrictions on investments of money held in state political campaign accounts. It was inspired by a number of questionable investments found in an audit of former state Rep. Jeremy Durham’s  funds.

The measure (SB377) had passed the Senate earlier (previous post HERE, including a press release) and it now goes to the governor for his signature.

Sponsors are Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, and Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga. The bill declares campaign funds must be deposited in a financial institution insured by the FDIC or the national credit union administration that is authorized to do business in the state.

The Durham audit found the Franklin Republican, expelled from his seat last year, had invested more than $100,000 of campaign money in a company operated by a major political donor and also used the funds to make substantial loans to a professional gambler and his wife. That’s not illegal under current law, though Durham is under investigation for multiple other allegations of activity that would be illegal.


Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.

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