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.”

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