Legality of Kelsey-PAC campaign money shifting questioned

There’s a money trail leading from the state campaign coffers of Sen. Brian Kelsey to radio advertisements used by an outside group to buoy his unsuccessful 2016 congressional bid, reports The Tennessean.

Kelsey’s trail involves the use of political action committees controlled by a private Nashville club (The Standard Club), a prominent but controversial GOP donor (Andrew Miller) and a well-known conservative advocacy organization (the American Conservative Union). It also may indicate illegal conduct by Kelsey and others, an expert said.

Continue reading

Paul Ryan schedules Knoxville fundraiser with TN Republican congressmen

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan is scheduled to visit Knoxville Thursday evening for a private fundraiser hosted by Republican members of the Tennessee congressional delegation, according to a widely-distributed invitation.

The invitation says basic cost of admittance is $2,500 per couple — $10,000 to come early and have a photo made with Ryan and/or the congressmen. Checks go to Team Ryan, a political action committee set up by the House speaker that, in turn, is affiliated with the National Congressional Campaign Committee, fundraising arm of the U.S. House Republican Caucus.

Presumably, Tennessee congressional delegation members will get a piece of the proceeds..

The invite says you have to RSVP to get the location, but Brian Hornback reports the reception is at Knoxville’s Cherokee Country Club with another gathering apparently planned afterwards at the home of James A. “Big Jim” Haslam II, Gov. Bill Haslam’s father and founder of Pilot Corp., to benefit the governor’s political action committee. Admission to the Haslam PAC fundraiser is $25,000 per couple.

TSEA backs underdog Democrat in House District 95 special election

News release from Tennessee State Employees Association

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Employees Action Movement endorses Julie Byrd Ashworth, D-Collierville, for House District 95.

“Working to elect candidates who support state employees is an important goal for TEAM-PAC, which is why we are happy to endorse Julie Byrd Ashworth for House District 95,” TEAM-PAC Administrative Committee Chair Patricia Bowman said.

“Ms. Ashworth’s experience as a trail lawyer will be an asset on Capitol Hill in Nashville as she advocates for state employees,” TSEA Executive Director Randy Stamps said. “Our local state employees were impressed with her knowledge of the issues affecting state employees.”

Note: Ashworth won the Democratic nomination in the House District 95 special election, called after the resignation of Republican Rep. Mark Lovell after he was accused of sexual harassment, without a primary opponent. The Republican nominee, businessman and school board member Kevin Vaughan, defeated six opponents in the heavily Republican district. The general election is June 15. TSEA Executive Director Stamps, quoted in the release, is a former Republican state representative and former political director of the Tennessee Republican Party.

Last-minute move to raise campaign contribution limits fizzles on House floor

In literally the last minutes of the 2017 legislative session, an attempt to substantially increase Tennessee political contribution limits surfaced, then subsided after a preliminary vote indicated it would fail. But the proposal will be up for a vote on both the House and Senate floors when the 2018 session begins.

Continue reading

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:

Continue reading

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.

‘Super PAC’ (TN version) to aid Green’s run for governor

A new political action committee has been established to help state Sen. Mark Green’s bid for the 2018 Republican gubernatorial election through independent expenditures. Named Leading the Way, the PAC reported raising $47,500 in its initial financial disclosure filed last week.

Green, R-Clarksville, is the first candidate to file a campaign committee to run for governor in 2018, though multiple politicians have declared an interest in doing so. Green reported raising $193,000 for that account in its initial report, including $23,000 from the PAC he operates himself.

As initially reported by The Tennessee Journal, Leading the Way PAC is spearheaded by Charles Cato, an attorney, former lobbyist and financial advisor who was active in fundraising for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’ unsuccessfully campaign for the Republican presidential nomination last year.

Says Cato in an email:

I did indeed form Leading The Way PAC in early November last year as an uncompensated volunteer working with a group of politically interested Tennesseans who wanted an independent vehicle to support the nomination and election of a limited government Constitutional conservative as Tennessee’s next Governor in the upcoming 2018 election cycle. My associates and I believe very strongly that Senator Mark Green is that candidate and that he stands to be a truly transformational Governor for the people of Tennessee.

Although Tennessee does not officially recognize a class of multi-candidate political committee called a “Super PAC”, Leading The Way was set up to operate in practice as a super pac.  We anticipate making no direct or in-kind candidate contributions. Instead, we’ll make only Independent Expenditures in support of, or possibly in opposition to, various candidates in the Governor’s race as the campaign proceeds between now and the election. We are not affiliated with nor will we coordinate our spending or voter contact plans with any candidate or candidate committee. As a result, we are able to accept contributions without dollar limitation. As a multi-candidate political committee in Tennessee, we are able to be involved in races for other state offices, i.e. the General Assembly. Our total focus for the 2018 cycle, however, will be in the Governor’s race – initially of course in the August 2018 Republican Primary election.

In the few months since our inception I’ve focused on assembling a team of seasoned political campaign professionals to handle the day to day political operations of the pac, We now have under contract, or are in late stage negotiations with, a general political consultant, a polling firm, opposition research vendors, direct mail design and production people, data analytics specialists, media production and placement firms, fundraising consultants, etc. Our focus for much of 2017 will necessarily be on fundraising – as I imagine it will be for the candidates themselves – with possibly some internal polling and research later in the year for purposes of planning, assessment of the overall political landscape in Tennessee, and for future message development. Beyond that, we’ll proceed as seems appropriate based on how the race develops and the availability of funding to support our initiatives.

…My intention is to run a very lean operation with a very high percentage of our donors’ funds going toward direct voter contact efforts, or what I call “putting lead on target.” Unlike some “dark money” political entities, Leading The Way PAC will be financially transparent regarding both the sources and the uses of any funds we’re dealing with. In my role as the unpaid “general contractor” for the group I have no financial interest whatsoever in any of the groups or vendors who we may have under contract.

Continue reading

Registry finds no wrongdoing by Stand for Children PAC

Four former Metro school board candidates and the special-interest group Stand for Children were cleared of wrongdoing by the Registry of Election Finance on Wednesday, reports WSMV-TV. The PAC and a independent expenditure group with the same name together about $250,000 last summer in supporting the four candidates and attacking their opponents.

Commissioners voted unanimously to dismiss a complaint that alleged Stand for Children and the former contenders for Metro Nashville School Board violated campaign finance law by exceeding contribution limits and illegally coordinating during a blackout period.

Jane Meneely, Miranda Christy, Thom Druffel and Jackson Miller all lost their campaigns. The attorney representing Stand for Children said this effort was a smear campaign orchestrated by sore winners.

“It is important to note that the original complaint filed against Stand and candidates for the Metro Nashville School Board was based on hearsay—not fact,” said attorney Stephen Zraleck. “And the facts, as presented in sworn affidavits, demonstrate that Stand followed both the letter and the spirit of state campaign finance law.”

But those who filed the complaint hailed the decision as a dark day for fair and transparent elections.

“It’s the old, ‘You’re going to believe me or your lying ears,’” said Gerard Stranch, who represented the consumer rights group Tennessee Citizen Action and a Nashville parent.  “They decided their ears are lying to them, and it’s very disappointing.”

In light of the Registry’s decision, Tennessee Citizen Action called on the Secretary of State’s Office to get involved.

“What’s the point of having the Registry of Election Finance if they are not going to hold political action committees and candidates accountable?” wrote director Andy Spears in a statement.

With some obfuscation, Andy Miller & family political giving totals $823,000

Andrew W. “Andy” Miller Jr. used eight variations on his name – and sometimes different addresses or occupation listings – in making as much as $550,000 in state-level political donations, reports The Tennessean. If members of the millionaire conservative activist’s immediate family are included – including Andrew W. “Woody” Miller, his father – the total rises to $823,000.

The obfuscation of the donations to state political action committees, incumbent state lawmakers and legislative candidates illustrates a loophole in campaign finance law that helps deep-pocketed donors skirt campaign contribution limits, according to a Tennessean analysis of more than a decade of campaign finance reports.

…Overall there are 27 donations totaling $32,650 from Andrew Miller Jr., Andy Miller Jr., and A.W. Miller Jr. to legislative candidates. There are 75 donations totaling $94,500 from Andy Miller, Andrew W. Miller, Andrew Miller and A.W. Miller.

…And Miller has given extensively to PACs in the last 10 years. Using various names, Miller has donated $65,000 to PACs controlled by Republican lawmakers… The Miller family – including Andy Miller’s wife, his brother and sister-in-law – have given more than $470,000 to political action committees not controlled by individual lawmakers.


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

Subscribe by Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.