Jeremy Durham

Durham lawsuit contends his ouster was unconstitutional

Former state Rep. Jeremy Durham filed a federal lawsuit Monday contending his ouster from the state House was unconstitutional and the state should still provide him his pension and health insurance, reports The Tennessean.

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Durham showing ‘total disrespect’ for campaign finance laws with new filing?

Former Rep. Jeremy Durham, who reported to the Registry of Election Finance in January that he had a $109,147.39 remaining in his old campaign account, filed a report Thursday that left blank the space for filling in January amount and instead there’s a handwritten note that reads “Ask Moeck.” In the space for the amount in the campaign fund on June 30 there’s the figure $65,204.94. There are zeros in all the places to be filled in with receipts and expenditures.

The Tennessean got an explanation of sorts from Peter Strianse, an attorney defending the ousted-from-office Franklin  Republican against a Registry finding that he repeatedly violated state campaign finance laws. Excerpt from the newspaper’s report:

Jay Moeck is the registry’s investigator, whose probe into Durham’s campaign finances resulted in the recent record-setting $465,000 fine levied against Durham at a June registry meeting.

… Strianse said Thursday his client hasn’t spent any campaign money since January but wasn’t sure what balance to include on his latest report.

“As the campaign finance report clearly states, Mr. Durham’s campaign account has had no activity this year,” Strianse said in an email.

“Since we have yet to receive anything in writing from the registry regarding the results of the June 7 meeting, we are unable to divine what number the registry expects Mr. Durham to include in the previous balance section of the report pending appeal of their unsupported decision.”

…Registry member Tom Lawless saw Durham’s comment about Moeck as an affront to the state.

“That shows his mindset for an authority that oversees these matters and his total disregard for the law,” Lawless said Thursday.

…“He is either admitting that as a member of leadership he couldn’t file a report accurately or completely, which in and of itself is an indictment against him for just arrogance or disregard for a system he was a part of,” Lawless said.

“Or he has filed false reports, and that in and of itself is another issue that the registry may or may not have to address.”

Registry votes to fine Durham $465K for campaign finance violations

The Registry of Election Finance board voted today to levy $465,000 in civil penalties against former state Rep. Jeremy Durham for multiple violations of state campaign finance laws. That’s the biggest such fine ever imposed by the watchdog agency in its 26-year history.

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Durham disputes campaign finance violations, criticizes state law

In a formal response to a Registry of Election Finance audit that found 690 potential violations of state campaign finance laws by former Rep. Jeremy Durham, the ex-legislator’s lawyer, Peter Strianse, and unnamed advisors offer explanations for some matters, generally deny any wrongdoing and criticize the laws involved.

WSMV has text of the document HERE. The Tennessean has a more lengthy narrative report on the 235-page response. An excerpt:

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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.

More details on Durham’s alleged campaign money misdeeds

In a formal, 30-page letter to former state Rep. Jeremy Durham, the Registry of Election Finance staff lists around 690 alleged violations of state campaign finance laws that were found in an audit. Since each could lead to a maximum civil penalty of $10,000, the total theoretically could be $6.9 million – more than the total collected from all fines in the Registry’s history.

The letter is a step toward deciding what, if any, penalty will be imposed. Durham has until May 1 to respond to the letter, offering any explanation or defense he wishes to the allegations – most involving use of campaign money for personal expenses and investments, but multiple cases of failure to disclose contributions and other infractions.

A Registry hearing is scheduled for June 14. The FBI is also reportedly investigating Durham, apparently with an eye toward tax evasion or fraud charges.

A copy of the letter is available by clicking on this link: durhamletter

The Tennessean has an overview story on the letter’s allegations. An excerpt:

The information… also provides for the first time the names of prominent campaign donors and business owners who gave Durham thousands of dollars that the former Franklin lawmaker never reported on his campaign disclosures… Additionally, the report details nearly $76,000 in improperly disclosed campaign expenditures — on everything from Florida restaurants and airplane tickets to flowers and a Yankee Candle purchase.

The donors and reportedly undisclosed contributions listed in the show cause notice include:

Lee Beaman, a well-known Republican fundraiser and prominent Nashville car dealer, gave Durham $3,000. Durham reported receiving only $1,500;

Cathy and John Simmonds gave Durham $6,000, but he reported receiving only $1,000. John Simmonds, the former CEO of Southeast Financial Credit Union, wrote a letter to a federal judge seeking leniency for a former youth pastor who admitted to statutory rape and child pornography charges. Durham also wrote a letter on the man’s behalf, although there is no discernible personal connection between Durham and the man;

Tracy and Cynthia Miller, who are the brother and sister-in-law of prominent Republican donor and businessman Andy Miller, donated $6,000 to Durham. He reported only $4,500.

Senate votes to restrict investment of campaign funds

The Senate approved 32-1 Monday evening a bill by Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, that puts new restrictions on legislators making investments with campaign funds.

The bill (SB377) comes after an audit found former Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, 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.

Overbey’s bill declares that campaign funds can be invested only in federally-insured accounts at a bank or credit union. The sole no vote came from Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who in a committee hearing last week declared “you can’t legislate against stupidity” and observed that the bill would prohibit some relatively safe and non-controversial investments such as municipal bonds.

Overbey said that “reasonable minds might differ” on where to draw a line on permitted investments, but that his bill simply restricts campaign money investing to what most legislators already use after “some things that never would have occurred to most of us to do.. did occur.”

Note: Press release below.

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Democrats call for repeal of ‘Jeremy’s law’

From the Associated Press

Democrats at the state Capitol on Tuesday blasted their Republican colleagues for not doing enough to prevent sexual harassment on the hill, after a freshman Republican lawmaker resigned surrounding allegations of sexual misconduct.

Rep. Mark Lovell, a fair and carnival operator from suburban Shelby County submitted his resignation letter on Tuesday. Lovell said in the letter that the elected position ended up being more demanding than he expected and that he needed more time to devote to his business interests and family.

Democrats though quickly sensed blood in the water and took the opportunity to strike.

“This is unacceptable behavior from people who are elected to the general assembly,” said Sherry Jones, a Democrat from Nashville.

Jones and two other top Democratic lawmakers addressed reporters Tuesday afternoon and called on lawmakers to repeal what’s known as Jeremy’s Law.

The bill, which passed last year, was unofficially named after former Rep. Jeremy Durham, who was expelled from his seat surrounding allegations he sexually harassed more than two dozen women at the Capitol.

That bill mandates any victim of sexual harassment who sues the state and loses must then pay for the legal fees of the defense.

“I would say nobody up here is safe anymore. If we can go through all of the sexual harassment issues that happened last year, and you still have somebody…who would do something like that again, what does that say about this place?” Jones added.

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Audit helps keep Durham ‘in the crosshairs’ of fed prosecutors?

Following up on the Registry of Election Finance audit of Jeremy Durham’s campaign finances, The Tennessean quotes a former federal prosecutor as sayiing the report is “packed with problematic stuff” for the former legislator that will keep him “in the crosshairs” of an ongoing federal investigation. The article goes on to give a couple of comparisons between federal prosecutions in other states and matters raised in the Durham audit.

Before federal investigators indicted North Carolina state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell Jr. on more than a dozen counts of money laundering, mail fraud, wire fraud and tax evasion, they asked him why he spent campaign money on haircuts.

Hartsell said he is a “hippie” and only trims his locks because he’s a lawmaker, according to federal court documents. Investigators called this rationalization an attempt to “perpetuate his scheme to defraud.”

In comparison, when a state auditor asked ex-Tennessee lawmaker Jeremy Durham why he spent more than $1,400 of campaign funds on lawn care, he reportedly told the investigators he needed the lawn mowed at his house in case he hosted fundraisers there.

In pleading guilty to a federal wire fraud charge this month, a former mayor in New York admitted to using campaign contributions for his own purposes. The wire fraud charge stemmed from the former mayor moving fraudulent funds between bank accounts, court documents state.

In the Durham audit, Tennessee campaign finance officials found Durham spent more than $10,000 of donor money on personal items, including alcohol and a plane ticket for his wife. He also routinely moved funds between his campaign, political action committee and personal and professional bank accounts.

Both the North Carolina and New York cases demonstrate strategies the FBI and U.S. attorney for Middle Tennessee could use if they indict Durham.

Durham’s lawyer threatened to sue Registry over audit release

In releasing an audit indicating hundreds of campaign finance law violations by former state Rep. Jeremy Durham, the Registry of Election Finance board ignored a threatened lawsuit by Durham’s lawyer, Peter Strianse, according to The Tennessean. Now Strianse says he and Durham have not decided whether to follow through on the threat.

In a Feb. 6 letter sent to a staff attorney for the registry… Strianse said releasing the audit to the public would be “premature and unfairly prejudicial” to the Franklin Republican, reflecting an argument he used prior to the audit’s release on Wednesday.

“Obviously this matter is of great public importance and personal importance to Mr. Durham. Respectfully, it is our belief that many of the findings contained in the Draft Report are clearly erroneous, contrary to law, and require significant correction and amplification,” Strianse wrote in his three-page letter, obtained by The Tennessean through an open records request.

Registry Treasurer Tom Lawless, who is also an attorney and served as chairman when the audit began, waved off the threat.

“It’s a knee-jerk reaction, almost as if the registry would be intimidated by that. Which couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s a complete immunity,” Lawless said in a phone interview Friday.

“The truth, generally, is an absolute defense in law.”

…“Libel and slander remain actionable torts when the individual in question is a public figure,” Strianse said (in the letter). “The release of the Draft Report over Mr. Durham’s timely objection may demonstrate that the challenged material was published with actual malice if it is prematurely released on 2/8/17 before Mr. Durham has had an opportunity to respond and proper findings have been made by the Board.”