campaign finance

Warner denies federal PPP loan money used to fund campaign

Rep. Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill) is sworn into the House in Nashville on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Freshman Rep. Todd Warner, one of three Republican lawmakers who had their homes and offices raided by the FBI in January, tells The Tennessean‘s Natalie Allison he didn’t use federal COVID-19 relief funds to pay for his campaign.

Warner, a Chapel Hill businessman, received $149,630 under the Paycheck Protection Program in April. He later loaned his campaign $154,100 in the process of defeating incumbent Rep. Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg) in the August primary.

Warner told the paper he used the PPP money to cover allowable business expenses, while he separately borrowed the money he loaned his campaign from a bank.

“They question your integrity, whether you’re an honest man when you’ve been blown up and they say you’re bankrupt, which I have been in 2010,” Warner told the paper, adding he had since rebounded financially.

Warner’s company filed for federal bankruptcy protection when he couldn’t pay more than $20 million in debts during the Great Recession.

“It was a sad time,” Warner said. “I hope we aren’t headed there again with the government giving all this money away.”

The FBI also hauled away materials from the homes and offices of former House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) and Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixson).

Warner files fundraising report after blaming FBI raid for delay

Rep. Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill) is sworn into the House in Nashville on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Freshman Rep. Todd Warner, one of three Republican House members who recently had their homes and offices raided by the FBI, has filed a campaign finance disclosure after previously saying he couldn’t access his records because they had been seized by the federal agents.

The Registry of Election Finance ruled this week that it didn’t have the authority to give Warner an extension due to the law enforcement activity and instructed him to reconstruct his report from online filings

According to the report, Warner’s top donations in the fourth quarter were $1,500 each from the PACs of Amazon and House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville). He also received $1,000 each from CVS Health, the Marshall County Republican Party, and Rep. Tim Rudd (R-Murfreesboro).

Warner reported raising a total of $9,750 and spending $1,183 during the period.

The other lawmakers searched by the FBI were Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin and Robin Smith of Hixson.

Warner a no-show at Registry hearing over failure to file disclosures due to FBI raid

Rep. Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill) is sworn into the House in Nashville on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Freshman Rep. Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill) was a no-show at Wednesday’s meeting of the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance to take up his request to waive his campaign finance disclosure requirement due to an FBI raid on his home and office.

Executive Director Bill Young said Warner had indicated he or his attorney would attend the meeting. But nobody appeared on his behalf.

“The FBI confiscated all files and documents related to my campaign including check copies from donations and checking account ledgers,” Warner said in last month’s email first reported by The Tennessee Journal. “They also took all computers and back ups for the campaign and my business.”

Registry member Hank Fincher said nothing prevented Warner from reconstructing his fourth-quarter disclosure from electronic bank records.

“The FBI took my bank records is not much of an excuse,” Fincher said.

The Registry agreed to send a letter to Warner saying the panel doesn’t have the authority to waive filing requirements.

Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro) also missed filing his report while hospitalized for COVID-19. Family members had alerted the panel only the lawmaker had access to the information needed to make the disclosure. The Registry again determined it wasn’t in a position to give Byrd a pass on filing requirements.

Lawmaker searched by FBI misses campaign finance deadline

Rep. Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill) is sworn into the House in Nashville on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Freshman Rep. Todd Warner of Chapel Hill, one of three Republican House members to have their homes and offices searched by the FBI earlier this month, did not file a fourth-quarter campaign finance report by Monday’s deadline.

The other subjects of the searches, Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin and Robin Smith of Hixson, filed their personal campaign and PAC disclosures on time.

Warner in an email to the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance said he was unable to complete his disclosure due to the raids.

“The FBI confiscated all files and documents related to my campaign including check copies from donations and checking account ledgers,” Warner said in the email obtained by The Tennessee Journal. “They also took all computers and back ups for the campaign and my business.”

Warner defeated Rep. Rick Tillis of Lewisburg in the Republican primary in August. The Tillis camp filed a complaint alleging coordination between Warner and an independent expenditure group calling itself Faith Freedom Family Fund because they used the same postal code. The account out of Chattanooga also sent mail for a new vendor called Phoenix Solutions, which ended up getting more than $200,000 worth of business from House Republicans last cycle.

Several House members have said Smith was a major proponent of first using Phoenix Solutions. She has declined to answer reporters’ questions about whether she has any financial ties to the outfit.

Lynn’s QAnon posts raise concerns with campaign donor

Rep. Susan Lynn (R-Mt. Juliet) hugs a colleague at GOP caucus meeting on July 24, 2019, in Nashville while Rep. Tim Rudd (R-Murfreesboro), right, looks on.. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

State House Finance Chair Susan Lynn (R-Mt. Juliet) tells the Associated Press she doesn’t support QAnon conspiracy theories even through she posted the group’s slogan on her social media accounts.

A spokeswoman for Brown-Forman, the corporate parent of Jack Daniel’s, told the AP’s Michael Kunzelman it wouldn’t have donated to Lynn had the company known of her QAnon postings.

“Now that our awareness is raised, we will reevaluate our criteria for giving to help identify affiliations like this in the future,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Conway said in a statement.

Other corporate donors like Amazon and Walmart didn’t respond to the AP’s request for comment.

The AP describes QAnon as being based on “the baseless belief that President Donald Trump is waging a secret campaign against enemies in the “deep state” and a child sex trafficking ring run by satanic pedophiles and cannibals.” QAnon has been linked to killings and attempted kidnappings..

According to the AP account:

“This is the United States of America, and I am absolutely free to tweet or retweet anything I want,” she said. “I don’t understand why this is even an issue. Believe me, I am not in the inside of some QAnon movement.”

But in October 2019, Lynn retweeted posts by QAnon-promoting accounts with tens of thousands of followers. One of the posts she retweeted praised Trump and included the hashtag #TheGreatAwakening, a phrase commonly invoked by QAnon followers.

[…]

In April, Lynn updated her Facebook page with a cover photo that included a flag with stars forming a “Q” above the abbreviation “WWG1WGA,” which stands for the QAnon slogan “Where we go one, we go all.” In May and June, Lynn punctuated several tweets with the same abbreviation.

And when a leading QAnon supporter nicknamed “Praying Medic” tweeted the message, “Is it time to Q the Trump rallies?” Lynn responded, “It is time!” in a May 31 tweet of her own. 

Lynn said she viewed “Where we go one, we go all” as a “very unifying slogan” and didn’t know it was a QAnon motto. However, a handful of Facebook users who replied to her updated cover photo in April commented on the QAnon connection. The flag is no longer her cover photo but could still be seen in the feed on her page on Friday. 

Read the full story here.

Who do you love? Top PAC donors of this election cycle

The doors of the state Capitol were closed to the public on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Political Action Committee giving to legislative candidates may be down in 2020 compared with the previous election cycle, but that doesn’t mean big money isn’t finding its way into the the campaign coffers and leadership committees of Tennessee lawmakers.

Through campaign finance disclosures running through the start of early voting on July 17, here are the top PAC and business recipients among state lawmakers, candidates, and leadership committees.

  1. MCPAC (Randy McNally): $510,380
  2. CAM PAC (Cameron Sexton): $385,287
  3. HOUSE REPUBLICAN CAUCUS: $334,500
  4. SENATE REPUBLICAN CAUCUS: $326,250
  5. TENNESSEE LEGISLATIVE CAMPAIGN COMMITTEE: $259,292
  6. SEXTON, CAMERON: $230,076
  7. ROSE, PAUL: $181,184
  8. JOHNSON, JACK: $147,950
  9. LAMBERTH PAC $138,000
  10. KEYPAC (Ken Yager):  $120,600
  11. REEVES, SHANE: $117,350
  12. LAMBERTH, WILLIAM: $115,750
  13. POWERS, BILL: $111,595
  14. TILLIS, RICK: $99,577
  15. FAISON, JEREMY: $97,750
  16. GARDENHIRE, TODD: $93,617
  17. SMITH, ROBIN: $90,550
  18. HAILE, FERRELL: $88,600
  19. LYNN, SUSAN: $86,550
  20. GANT, RON: $85,550
  21. DICKERSON, STEVEN: $82,150
  22. BELL, MIKE: $78,580
  23. HICKS, GARY: $77,408
  24. YAGER, KEN: $77,065
  25. BAILEY, PAUL: $76,100

The PACs and businesses that have given most generously are:

  1. TENNESSEE REALTORS PAC: $446,700
  2. WINE AND SPIRITS WHOLESALERS OF TENNESSEE PAC: $324,100
  3. TENNESSEE BANKERS ASSN PAC: $189,250
  4. TENNESSEE EDUCATION ASSOCIATION: $164,710
  5. AMAZON.COM SERVICES LLC: $163,000
  6. TENNESSEE HIGHWAY CONTRACTORS PAC: $161,500
  7. JACK DANIEL’S PAC: $154,000
  8. FLEX PAC: $149,500
  9. INDEPENDENT MEDICINE’S PAC-TN: $146,250
  10. TN ADVANCE FINANCIAL PAC: $146,100
  11. BLUE CROSS BLUE SHIELD OF TN PAC: $134,600
  12. FEDEX CORPORATION PAC: $133,100
  13. CAM PAC: $129,817
  14. FRIENDS OF THA: $121,250
  15. AT&T TENNESSEE PAC: $117,650
  16. CORECIVIC INC. PAC: $115,750
  17. TENNESSEE HEALTH CARE ASSN PAC: $112,750
  18. TENNESSEE REYNOLDS AMERICAN INC. PAC: $105,750
  19. TENNESSEE EMPLOYEES ACTION MOVEMENT: $102,400
  20. HCA TRISTAR FUND: $101,900

House bill would do away with pre-election disclosures

Rep. Tim Rudd (R-Murfreesboro), right, attends a House GOP caucus meeting on July 24, 2019, in Nashville. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Voters would know a lot less about candidates’ fundraising activity under bill up for consideration on the House floor Monday. The measure sponsored by Rep. Tim Rudd (R-Murfreesboro) would do away with the pre-primary and pre-general reports candidates must currently file to cover the period ending 10 days before the vote.

[UPDATE: The House voted 87-5 to pass the bill.]

The bill would instead require only quarterly reports. Using this year’s election as a guide, candidates wouldn’t have to disclose how much money they had raised — or from whom — for more than five weeks between the end of the most recent full quarter and the primary or general election.

The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance says doing away with the pre-election reports would not significantly reduce the agency’s workload.

 

The measure would also do away with unitimized disclosures for contributions under $100.

The companion bill has yet to be head in the Senate, which has declared it will only focus on coronavirus-related or time-sensitive legislation in its return into session.

Questions mount about Rep. Rick Staples’ campaign spending

On the heels of news last week that Democratic Rep. Rick Staples has been evicted from his Knoxville home, questions are being raised about thousands of dollars the lawmaker spent out of his campaign account.

According to the Knoxville News Sentinel and Cari Gervin’s Dog and Pony Show blog, Staples spent $1,200 at a local restaurant just before his wedding last year, and on a rental car, hotel stays, and air travel coinciding with his honeymoon.

Staples’ treasurer, Wes Knott, told the Knox News, he resigned before the lawmaker’s most recent campaign finance report was made, saying: “I just didn’t feel comfortable being treasurer anymore.”

The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance has sent a letter to Staples asking him to clarify several expenditures.

Five days after returning from his honeymoon, Staples was evicted from his home for failing to pay $8,875 in rent. Gervin writes on her blog that Staples’ former home was at 1970 Locarno Drive, a property owned by Lawrence Thompson. Staples’ campaign disclosures say he gave what he deemed to be “donations” of $350 and $950 to a Larry Thompson of 1968 Locarno Drive.

Staples said his eviction was related to a dispute over “fungus” in the home. He told the Knox News he is currently living outside of House District 15 because of trouble finding a home accessible by his disabled son.

“This process has taken much longer than I anticipated and, while frustrating, has made me more aware and sensitive of the needs of my constituents with disabilities in all aspects of accessing public services and private establishments,” Staples told the paper.

As for legal action taken by his former landlord, Staples calls that a politically-motivated “character assassination.”

Staples resigned from his leadership position within the House Democratic Caucus last year after he was found to have violated the General Assembly’s sexual harassment policy.

Former Senate speaker among those interviewed by feds in Brian Kelsey probe

Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), right, attends a Senate Education Committee meeting in Nashville on April 16, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Former Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey is among officials interviews by federal officials investigating fundraising related to state Sen. Brian Kelsey’s failed 2016 congressional bid, The Tennessean reports.

That Kelsey’s campaign money matters are under the federal microscope has been known since this spring. But the newspapers Joel Ebert is first to reveal some of the name of who agents have contacted in the matter.

Ramsey told the paper he was interviewed by an FBI agent in May or June.

“They wanted to subpoena me to appear before a grand jury,” Ramsey said.

Also interviewed was Nashville Councilman Steve Glover, who gave money to Kelsey’s federal PAC during a 2016 after receiving money from the senator’s federal PAC.

“They just had several questions about several things,” Glover said in a phone interview. “I just didn’t have much to share.”

Agents also flew in from Washington in August or September to interview a current lawmaker, whom the paper did not identify in its report.

Candidates are prohibited from using money raised for state races in federal campaigns. As The Tennessean reported in 2017 (and
later augmented by a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission), Kelsey’s state committee, Red State PAC, gave thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to fellow state lawmakers, who then turned around and gave donations to his congressional account.

The former state Senate Judiciary chairman also had more than $100,000 from his state account transferred to the Standard Club PAC, which then gave money to the American Conservative Union — both directly and through another committee run by conservative businessman Andy Miller Jr. The national group then made independent expenditures on Kelsey’s behalf.

The American Conservative Union’s director of government affairs at the time was the former Amanda Bunning. She and Kelsey married in January 2018.

Kelsey has denied any wrongdoing.

Former GOP executive committee member indicted

Kelsey Ketron, a former member of the executive committee of the Tennessee Republican Party and daughter of Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron, has been indicted.

The Daily News Journal of Murfreesboro reports Kelsey Ketron was arrested on three sealed indictments (UPDATE: the indictments were later unsealed. See below). She was being held a $100,000 bond at the Rutherford County jail on Tuesday.

Ketron has been the subject of an investigation into allegations of insurance fraud. State and federal agents raided her home and her father’s insurance company in July. The mayor told the newspaper at the time he was shocked by the warrants. Bill Ketron is facing an audit into his campaign finance filings. His daughter was his PACs’ treasurer.

Ketron was the state Senate Republican Caucus chairman before he was elected mayor. Kelsey Ketron resigned from the GOP’s executive committee in late July.

UPDATE: 

Kelsey Ketron faces dozens of charges, according to the Daily News Journal. They are:

  • 30 counts of impersonating a licensed professional.
  • 14 counts of money laundering.
  • 12 counts of aggravated perjury.
  • 5 counts of fraudulent insurance acts of $250,000 or more.
  • 5 counts of forgery of $250,000 or more.
  • two counts of fraudulent insurance acts between $60,000-$250,000.
  • one count of a fraudulent insurance act between $10,000-$59,999.
  • one count of theft of property between $10,000-$60,000.
  • one count of theft of property $60,000-$250,000.