Jeremy Durham

New TNJ edition alert: Casada’s fall, Bell bows out, Durham decision

House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) checks his phone in the House chamber in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

In this week’s edition of the print edition of The Tennessee Journal:

— Casada won’t run again after fall from speaker to delivery driver. Could run for Williamson County clerk be next?

— Redistricting: Bell, Casada retirements grant breathing room to mapmakers.

— Lee favorite bows out, leaving wide-open competition for Supreme Court opening.

— We have a ruling over ousted Rep. Durham’s record penalty for campaign finance violations.

— A shakeup at the top in Gov. Bill Lee’s office.

Also: Hagerty hits fellow Republicans over infrastructure vote, the Barretts host a fundraiser for Ketron, Trump endorses Fleischmann, and mirrors on the ceiling at the governor’s mansion (shudder).

As always, access your copy of the TNJ here or subscribe here.

Report: Durham subpoenaed for Kelsey grand jury

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

Sam Stockard of the Tennessee Lookout has some interesting details on former Rep. Jeremy Durham (R-Franklin) being subpoenaed to testify to the grand jury about Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), who was indicted last week on federal campaign finance and conspiracy charges.

UPDATE: Kelsey pleaded not guilty on Monday morning, per the Daily Memphian.

According to the Lookout, Durham was called to testify on March 11:

As part of the subpoena, Durham was required to provide copies of all documents and records related to Kelsey, Kelsey’s wife, Amanda Bunning, his wife, Jessica Durham, Josh Smith, Andrew “Andy” Miller, Zach Crandell, Matt Schlapp of the American Conservative Union, Dan Schneider, Ryan McGowan, Clifford Pintak, Kelsey for Congress, Red State PAC, VoteKelsey.com, American Conservative Union, Citizens 4 Ethics in Government PAC and any entity representing Kelsey and his associated political campaigns.

We know who the Kelseys and the Durhams are, along with Standard club owner Josh Smith and conservative donor Andy Smith. Here’s our best guess at some of the others named in the subpoena:

Schlapp is the chairman of the American Conservative Union, the Washington-based group that puts on CPAC conferences. McGowan is the ACU’s finance director, Dan Schneider is its executive director, and Crandell was the group’s creative director until September. Pintak is a political ad consultant based in northern Virginia.

Durham was also ordered to turn in all records relating to the funds transferred between the various entities and the Standard Club PAC, plus any relevant calendars, diaries, meeting minutes, receipts, or statements, along with emails, text messages, voice mails, phone calls, logs, and metadata. 

Kelsey in a Senate floor speech last week intimated that the chief witness in the case against him had been offered immunity in return for his testimony. Durham and Kelsey have long been close friends.

Kelsey steps down as chair of Education Committee following federal charges

Sen. Brian Kelsey walks in the state Capitol in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) has announced he will stop down as chair of the Education Committee while fighting federal conspiracy and campaign finance charges.

Kelsey in his floor comments erroneously cited The Tennessee Journal as reporting the chief witness in the case had been granted immunity from federal charges. We have previously reported that the attorney for former Rep. Jeremy Durham (R-Franklin), who is included in the complaint as an unindicted coconspirator, said in an unrelated court appearance that federal prosecutors told him his client wasn’t going to face criminal charges. But Durham’s attorney, Peter Strianse, said nothing about immunity or any connections to the Kelsey matter.

It’s possible Kelsey was referring to someone other than Durham, but the Journal hasn’t reported about immunity for anyone else in the case.

Here are Kelsey’s full comments on the Senate floor, along with responses from two colleagues.

KELSEY:

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Per Senate rules, I’m requesting a temporary suspension from chairing the Education Committee based on allegations of intent to violate campaign finance laws. Colleagues, let me be clear: I’m totally innocent. And I look forward to clearing my name through the judicial process.

If you will indulge me for a brief moment, there are three points about the government’s investigation I did want to emphasize.

No 1., and most important, I understood I was operating within campaign finance rules, and I believe the donation at issue was legal. It was made on the advice of counsel. No. 2, ad I’m sure you saw in The Tennessee Journal, according to his lawyer, the government’s lead witness was given immunity from federal charges. And No. 3, the timing of the government’s investigation is questionable because they waited five years and a change of administration to pursue it.

And there are several other issues that I will not mention here because my lawyers won’t let me.

But I’m confident that these will become apparent during the course of the legal proceedings. And like many of you, I entered public service as a calling. While regretfully partisan politics these days often comes into play, and we may not agree on every issue, I hope that you will agree that for 17 years – 17 years – I, like you, have always voted for what I thought was best for Tennesseans.  And we must find a way in state governmetn and our nation to heal these divisions, to work together on behalf of the people, to move past this extremely divisive time, and to not use political attacks on one another to discourage good people from running for office and participating in our vital government processes.

I hope and pray that we can all truly come together again in the peace, strength, and unity that defines our great state of Tenenssee and our nation. You know, my faith in the lord, it will get me through this challenge. And I am extremely blessed with the strongest and most supportive wife that I can ever imagine and a joyous 2-year-old daughter, too. I have the tremendous honor to represent the people of my county and my state.

And I cannot close without expressing my sincere appreciation for the encouragement that many of you have recently offered. I trust in time the truth will prevail and I will resume my leadership role o the Education Committee. Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your time and support.

SENATE SPEAKER RANDY MCALLY (R-Oak Ridge:

Thank you, Sen. Kelsey. I know it’s a very difficult time for you and your wife and daughter. And I want you to know that my prayers are with you and your family, and I appreciate the action that you have taken today. I think this will allow you to concentrate fully on your case and not be burdened with the issues of chairmanship. And I appreciate you as a senator and as a person. Thank you.

SEN. FRANK NICELEY (R-Strawberry Plains):

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. This would be a perfect time for me to not say anything. But I want to just give you something to think about. These campaign contributions are private dollars. They’re not tax dollars. And when the federal government, the U.S congressmen and U.S. senators, passed a law that we couldn’t use our money that we raised here in the state of Tenenssee to run for federal office, that was pure self-service. That was an incumbent protection act. They didn’t want us to use our money to run against them. I think the whole law is bad.

I don’t think I have a single contributor who would mind, if I was 20 years younger, me running for Congress and using that money. So I know they’ll never change it because they don’t want someone with three or four hundred thousand dollars in their Senate account running for Congress. And that’s exactly the reason that law was passed in the first place, keeping somebody like Jack Johnson using his state money to run for a federal seat. It’s self-serving and it’s not right.

New TNJ edition alert: Durham attorney targets Registry, committee changes in House

The state Capitol on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

In this week’s print edition of The Tennessee Journal:

— Registry on trial? Durham lawyer blames ‘scorched-earth’ treatment for record fine.

— House holds redistricting meeting, but big decisions remain a ways off.

— Lawmaker no longer on House Government Operations after diatribes over COVID-19 policies.

— House GOP lands big haul at caucus fundraiser.

Also: Katrina Robinson’s federal fraud trial gets underway next week, Gov. Bill Lee says he is vaccinated and acting like it, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper ruminates on the passage of time in the General Assembly, and the return of Chick-fil-A at the Tennessee Tower has Capitol denizens rejoicing.

Access the your copy of the TNJ here or subscribe here.

Judge slashes Jeremy Durham’s campaign finance fines by 75%

A judge has slashed ousted state Rep. Jeremy Durham’s record campaign fine by 75%, The Tennessean’s Joel Ebert reports.

The Franklin Republican had been hit with $465,000 in fines in 2017 for a series of violations. Administrative Law Judge Steve Darnell in a ruling dated Friday that Durham should instead have to pay $110,000 in fines.

The Registry of Election Finance does not have have an “an unbridled right to dole out civil penalties,” Darnell wrote. The panel had not proven that Durham had spent money on items like sunglasses and dry-cleaning in an inappropriate way. The judge also said campaign money the former lawmaker spent on his handgun carry permit and continuing legal education could have been considered legitimate expenditures.

Darnell also found nothing wrong with Durham’s investment of $100,000 in campaign funds into a company owned by conservative donor Andy Miller Jr. or a $30,000 loan to a professional gambler. The legislature only subsequently banned that sort of spending of campaign funds, the judge said.

The House voted 70-2 in 2016 to expel Durham after a state attorney general’s investigation detailed allegations of serial sexual misconduct.

Resolution to oust Byrd won’t be on calendar. But is one even needed?

Embattled Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro) attends a House Education Committee meeting in Nashville on March 28, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Tennessean’s Natalie Allison reports that a resolution seeking to oust state Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro) over sexual misconduct allegations dating back to when he was a girls’ high school basketball coach in the 1980s won’t be placed on the House calendar for this week’s special session.

If Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) wants her resolution to be taken up, it would require a two-thirds majority to suspend the rules — the same margin required to oust a sitting member.

But there’s a fairly obvious workaround, if past experience with the ouster of then-Rep. Jeremy Durham (R-Franklin) is any guide. During the 2016 special session to undo a drunken driving bill that threatened $60 million in highway funds for running afoul of federal guidelines, Rep. Susan Lynn (R-Mt. Juliet) stood to announce a motion to oust Durham over the sexual misconduct allegations laid out in a state attorney general’s report.

There was no accompanying resolution for the successful effort to remove Durham, which rankled the former lawmaker’s few supporters in the chamber. They included then-Rep. Rick Womick (R-Murfreesboro), who likened the House to a “banana republic” if any member could just stand and make a motion to oust another.

But Joe McCord, the House clerk at the time, cited the following provision in the Tennessee Constitution outlining the power to remove members:

Section 12. Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member, but not a second time for the same offense; and shall have all other powers necessary for a branch of the Legislature of a free state.

While the General Assembly is required to stay within the governor’s call for the special session, which are to pass updates to court rules that didn’t get taken up during this spring’s regular session, internal housekeeping matters like leadership elections are also allowed.

Byrd, who was recorded by one of the now-adult women apologizing for unspecified sins in the past, has been urged by Lee not to seek re-election next year.

Byrd running for re-election despite sexual misconduct scandal

Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro) has announced he will seek re-election despite allegations of sexual misconduct with three of his teenage basketball players when he was their 28-year-old high school basketball coach.

Byrd spent much of Thursday’s floor session wandering around House chamber trying to drum up support among fellow lawmakers, embracing some of them and exchanging cell phone numbers. Byrd, who incorporates his nickname “Coach” and the outline of a basketball in his logo, may well benefit from this week’s candidate filing deadline to avoid serious opposition in this year’s election.

But Republicans worried about tighter-than-usual races in other districts likely won’t welcome having to defend inevitable political attacks based on Byrd’s candidacy.

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Judge dismisses Durham lawsuit seeking pension and insurance benefits

U.S. District  Court Judge Aleta Trauger dismissed Friday a lawsuit filed by former state Rep.  Jeremy Durham seeking to restore lifetime health care and pension benefits he lost when the state House voted to expel him last year, according to The Tennessean. Continue reading

Fines imposed on former Rep. Durham now total $505,000

The Registry of Election Finance board voted Tuesday to impose another $10,000 civil penalty against former state Rep. Jeremy Durham, reports WTVF. That pushes total financial penalties assessed against Durham to $505,000.

The new fine was levied for wrongly reporting contributions and expenditures by Durham PAC, the political action committee set up by the Franklin County Republican. The Registry previously voted to impose a state record $465,000 in penalties against Durham for multiple violations in his regular campaign account. (Previous post HERE.)

And the Tennessee Ethics Commission has voted to impose $30,000 in penalties against Durham for problems with his filings of conflict-of-interest disclosures. (Previous post HERE.)

TBI agents, investigating former Rep. Jeremy Durham, ask legislators about bribery

TBI agents recently interviewed at least two state legislators – House Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Franklin, and Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden — in conjunction with a criminal investigation into former Rep. Jerry Durham, reports The Tennessean. The agents specifically asked about bribery, but Casada and Holt said they were unaware of any such activity.

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