Chip Saltsman may have left U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann's staff on New Year's Day, but certain benefits still may be flowing his way.
Since July 2011, the Fleischmann campaign has earmarked $51,523 in donor funds to pay Saltsman's legal fees in a lawsuit 600 miles away from Washington, D.C.
Campaign finance records show the latest payment, $15,000, came on Nov. 14. Fleischmann's office announced Saltsman's resignation as chief of staff a month later.
After spending $1.3 million on the 2012 election cycle, the Fleischmann campaign reported $50,990 on hand and $226,538 in debts, according to the latest filings.
Last week, Fleischmann and his Nashville-based attorney declined to respond to inquiries about whether the Republican congressman's campaign will continue paying Saltsman's bills this year. Saltsman and his attorney did not return a detailed phone message seeking comment Thursday.
The legal fees stem from a 2-year-old Davidson County Circuit Court lawsuit filed by a rival political operative. Former Robin Smith aide Mark Winslow is suing Fleischmann and Saltsman over advertising claims the duo made in the 2010 election. Winslow seeks $750,000 in damages.
Fleischmann edged Smith and became the Republican nominee after a bitter 3rd District primary season. The lawsuit alleges defamation, inducement to breach a contract and invasion of privacy.
After Fleischmann's campaign consulted with the Federal Election Commission in 2011, the agency determined that using donations to defend Saltsman was allowable because the lawsuit involves "allegations directly relating to campaign activities engaged in by Mr. Saltsman."
In a past interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Saltsman compared the situation to a company absorbing legal fees "when their employees get sued for doing their job." Fleischmann offered a different explanation under oath, saying Saltsman asked for help because he lacked insurance coverage.
Saltsman is a nationally known campaign consultant who managed Mike Huckabee's 2008 presidential bid. Depositions obtained last year by the Times Free Press paint Saltsman as Fleischmann's political mastermind.
Both men testified they relied on Winslow's confidential Tennessee Republican Party personnel files for a 2010 attack ad charging that Smith paid "lavish bonuses" to Winslow at a time when Smith was state party chairman, Winslow was her staffer and the party was in debt.
But Smith's successor -- Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney -- testified he was the one who paid Winslow $12,504 as part of a severance agreement. Fleischmann testified he had no concrete basis to make the "lavish bonuses" charge in 2010.
Saltsman sometimes supervised, approved and produced ads that Fleischmann didn't see until they hit the airwaves, according to the depositions. In one case, Saltsman used computer imaging to make a nongovernment document appear official in a television ad critical of Smith.
"A lot of people put the state seal on stuff," Saltsman testified.
Meanwhile, attorneys continue to litigate the lawsuit, which is entering its third year after being filed in January 2011. Gary Blackburn, Winslow's attorney, filed a motion to add the Tennessee Republican Party as a defendant last week.
A trial could be months away, Blackburn said.