tennessee registry of election finance

NRA opposes bill requiring more campaign spending disclosures

Rep. Cameron Sexton presides over his first session as House speaker on Aug. 23, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The National Rifle Association is speaking out against an effort to require dark money groups to disclose their campaign spending in Tennessee. The bill sponsored by House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) and his Senate counterpart, Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), seeks to require 501(c)(4) groups to report any spending above $5,000 before elections.

The NRA says the legislation as drafted could lead to confusion among nonprofits and campaign finance regulators. State Director Matt Herriman also says the bill lead to the names of donors to become public, despite sponsors’ assurances to the contrary. Some of the issues were address in an amendment to the bill advancing out of the House Finance Subcommittee on Tuesday (after the the letter was sent), but the gun rights group still has concerns.

Here’s the letter from the NRA:

Members of the Finance, Ways & Means Subcommittee
RE: Senate Bill 1005/House Bill 1201: Campaigns and Campaign Finance

Dear Chairman Hicks and Members of the Committee:

On behalf of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its hundreds of thousands of members in Tennessee, I write to express our strong opposition to Senate Bill 1005 (SB 1005) and House Bill 1201 (HB 1201). To be clear, we oppose this legislation as passed in the Senate and with today’s proposed amendment #017654.

SB 1005/HB 1201 is akin to efforts by states like California and New York to compel 501(c)(4)s to turn over their private donor information. Disclosure of this type of information potentially can subject donors to unwarranted harassment.

If this legislation is enacted in this form (even with the proposed amendment), 501(c)(4)s will have a difficult time anticipating what agencies and courts will interpret it to mean.

The amended legislation provides that if 501(c)(4)s make qualifying expenditures, they must, “report expenditures, in accordance with § 2-10-105(c)(1) and (h),” and appoint a treasurer (something normally only required of political committees). As the law stands now, reports in accordance with § 2-10-105(c)(1) include disclosure of both expenditures and contributions. Even with the amendment, there is a danger a court could use the requirement to “report…in accordance with -105(c)(1)” to read a donor disclosure requirement into the amendment.

Further, the amended language also requires groups to “report expenditures, in accordance with [-105(h)].” Nothing in § 2-10-105(h) has anything to do with the reporting of expenditures. This language is unclear. This seems to open the door even wider for a court to read a donor disclosure requirement into the bill.

For purposes of Chapter 10, the definition of an expenditure is spending, “for the purpose of influencing a measure or the nomination for election or election of any person to public office…” Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-10-102(6)(A). Spending that would trigger the new requirements of this bill is not limited to spending for the purpose of influencing an election. Spending having nothing to do with elections, including but not limited to grassroots lobbying communications, could trigger the obligations to report and appoint a treasurer. This creates the very real prospect that groups like NRA could spend $5,000 on a legislative communication or the like, incur the obligation to file reports and appoint a treasurer, and yet have no reportable “expenditures” under the relevant definition.

It is also unclear over what period of time the qualifying $5,000 must be spent in order to trigger the obligations in the bill. Is it $5,000 in a quarter? In a calendar year? Per election (primary, general, special, runoff, etc.)? Per election cycle? Or would a group have to keep track of qualifying spending for an indefinite period of years, and start filing reports once the aggregate spending reaches the threshold?
Finally, it is unclear how far into the future the obligation to report, and to maintain a treasurer registration, extends. Nothing in the bill seems to specify when the obligation to keep filing reports ends.

In summary, the bill (even with the amendments) fails to answer some of the most basic questions that it raises. If it is enacted, this legislation will be a mess for the Registry of Election Finance, the courts, and the regulated community, including NRA and countless other advocacy groups. Its final effects could be significantly different than what was intended.

For the foregoing reasons, the NRA respectfully opposes Senate Bill 1005/HB 1201.

Sincerely,

Matt Herriman

Tennessee State Director

NRL-ILA

Registry refers Casada, Cothren probes to Williamson County prosecutor

Registry member Tom Lawless and then-Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixson) confer on the House floor before Gov. Bill Lee’s State of the State address on Jan. 31, 2022. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance is referring its investigations into former House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) and his onetime chief of staff, Cade Cothren, to Williamson County prosecutors.

The move comes after former Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixson) pleaded guilty last week to a federal wire fraud charge over the creation of a front company called Phoenix Solutions, which obtained contracts to design, print, and send political mailers on behalf of Republican lawmakers.

Smith’s charging document made thinly-veiled references to Casada and Cothren, alleging they were heavily involved in the scheme.

The motion by Registry member Tom Lawless also sends prosecutors the case of the Faith Family Freedom Fund. The PAC’s treasurer testified to the panel in January that she had founded it at the behest of Cothren and had no further role in its activities. The outfit proceeded to lob attacks at then-Rep. Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg) in his unsuccessful re-election bid in 2020.

Registry member Tom Lawless made the motion to involve Williamson County prosecutors, arguing it would be the appropriate venue because it covers Casada home area. He also raised concerns the issue could be “weaponized” amid a contested Democratic primary for Nashville district attorney. It’s unclear whether Williamson County DA Kim Helper will recuse herself from the case.

Casada blasts Registry as ‘biased,’ Ogles threatens legislative action to halt subpoenas

Then-House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin), right, meets with members on the Senate floor on May 1, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Former House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) on Friday called the members of the Registry of Election Finance “biased” for subpoenaing information from him about a political action committee allegedly created at the behest of his onetime chief of staff, Cade Cothren.

Speaking at a Williamson Inc. forum, Rep. Brandon Ogles (R-Franklin) also blasted the move, saying the House plans to take a “deep dive” into the powers of the campaign finance board’s powers. Ogles is close friends with Cothren and was a prominent Casada loyalist before his speakership collapsed in 2019.

Casada is retiring from the House and running for Williamson County clerk this year. The Registry in 2020 hit Casada with a $10,500 civil penalty for failing to keep receipts for $99,000 worth of expenditures made by his PAC. He also had his home and office searched by FBI agents early last year.

The Registry last week voted to issue subpoenas after a former girlfriend of Cothren’s testified under oath that she had set up a political action committee called the Faith Family Freedom Fund at his urging, but then had nothing to with it as it bankrolled attacks on the re-election bid of then-Rep. Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg). Email correspondence between someone purporting to be herself and the Registry did not come from her, she said.

Here is a transcript of the Williamson Inc. meeting on Friday:

Dave Crouch, moderator: The elephant in the room maybe this morning is you’ve been in the paper with some questions been asked about various things here recently. Is there anything you would like to say?

Glen Casada: I feel like a kid sitting on the side of the road, and someone’s just some come and punched me in the nose for no reason. If you didn’t know, the election registry of finance has subpoenaed me to ask me questions on a PAC. And the frustrating thing is, Dave, I have no knowledge of this PAC, I have no association, and there’s no reason to think that I do. And I realize three years ago, I was quite involved politically across the state on elections and getting people elected. But I just feel like the board has a bias, you know? And so, so let me just be very clear. And I was very clear [when I ] contacted them. Guys, not only do I not know, or never heard of this PAC, or no association with it. Why would you even reach out and punch me in the nose like you did? You know, there’s no reason to do that. So, so let me just put that to bed. And thank you for this opportunity to address it.

Crouch: I’m gonna push back a little just for conversation here. Cade Cothren was your chief of staff?

Casada: Yes. Three years ago.

Crouch: When you were speaker of House?

Casada: He was.

Crouch: And apparently he’s the one that had his girlfriend set this PAC up. That’s correct?

Casada: Yes.

Crouch: And why would he have done that?

Casada: You could ask Sam [Whitson], Brandon [Ogles], or Jack [Johnson] that question. I don’t know. I mean, there’s no association. It’s been three years ago when he was employed by me. So again, it’s just a bias on that board’s opinion. And the legislature gave them certain powers to be deliberative, and to be fair, and not biased. And I feel like you’re exhibiting biases by just assuming because he once worked for me three years ago, you know, that somehow I’m involved. And that’s not the way we run public policy.

Crouch: I just, I didn’t want to totally ignore the subject. I want to just air it out some. Brandon, you’ve got a comment?

Brandon Ogles: I’d like to speak to this because there was a conversation yesterday with members of the Judiciary Committee in the House. The fact that some of the things that were said in the press, they were so sloppily said by these committee members. For them to issue a subpoena that’s not signed by a judge, there’s going to be ramifications for that when you start threatening people to subpoena them. Some of these boards that we’ve set up in the state of Tennessee, these pseudo-entities, even entities within the state of Tennessee, that threaten people. And to issue subpoenas that have no weight, or credit, or value – and are not signed by a judge – circumvents every judiciary process we have in this state, both criminally and civilly. So we’re going to deep dive into this, this threat to subpoena people. And if this continues, remember: also the House committees can subpoena as well. So this will be interesting to watch play out. I’m going to enjoy being a member of Judiciary and seeing this come to light.

Is that you, Cade? Read the email to the Registry the PAC’s treasurer says she didn’t write

The treasurer of a PAC that pilloried then-Rep. Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg) in the 2020 primary says she never did anything beyond register the Faith Family Freedom Fund. Everything else, she testified to the Registry last week, was handled by the man she once thought she was in love with: Cade Cothren.

“He told me that none of this was illegal, that he didn’t do anything illegal, and that it was no big deal to open the political action committee,” said Sydney Friedopfer, a former Vanderbilt student.

“And he said he just couldn’t have a name on it, considering everything he had gone through, which I’m sure everyone’s aware,” she said. “But yeah, he resigned from his position as chief of staff to Glen Casada. And he didn’t want his name on the political action committees.”

Friedopfer, who now lives in Utah, said she was unaware the PAC had a Gmail address and that someone had been corresponding with the Registry under her name.

That was not me,” Friedopfer said.

An email purporting to be from Friedopfer was sent from a FaithFamilyFreedomTN@gmail.com account on Nov. 2, 2020. It was dismissive of a complaint filed against the PAC for allegedly coordinating its activities with Todd Warner, the Republican challenger who would go on to win the seat.

“It is extremely difficult to follow the rabbit holes of Mr. Hazelwood in this complaint and it seems the majority of his grievances are with other people/organizations,” the email said. “To our knowledge, we have disclosed all information required of our PAC in Tennessee and will certainly continue doing so.”

After offering to answer any further questions, the author signed off: “Thank you again, Sydney.”

The Registry last week voted to subpoena Cothren and others for more information about the PAC.