U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann's main campaign committee used campaign donations to pay legal expenses for Chip Saltsman, the congressman's chief of staff, finance records show.
On July 1, the campaign spent $7,565.38 on Waddey & Patterson P.C., the Nashville firm defending Saltsman. He is accused in a lawsuit of defaming and slandering an aide to Robin Smith, Fleischmann's chief 3rd District GOP primary opponent last year.
Neither Fleischmann nor the congressman's principal campaign committee is named as a defendant in the Davidson County Circuit Court lawsuit.
But Fleischmann's office did consult with the federal agency that oversees election law, which determined that using donations to defend Saltsman was allowable.
Of seven donors interviewed Friday, including attorney Stuart Brown and accountant Tom Decosimo, most had no issue with the campaign's actions.
One woman who did not want to be named said she couldn't figure out why her donation was diverted to "Saltsman's legal problems in Nashville."
"The monies that go toward Chuck and his staff - it's a judgment call," said Brown, who donated $250 to Fleischmann. "To me, it's all politically motivated. If it frees up Chip, I'm fine with it."
"Under the circumstances, I think Chuck did what he thought was right," said Connie Weathers, a Chattanooga homemaker who recently donated $500 to the campaign.
The Smith aide, Mark Winslow, served as the Tennessee Republican Party's chief of staff while Smith was chairman. He became Smith's media director during last year's primary. Saltsman ran Fleischmann's campaign and now heads the congressman's Washington, D.C., staff.
Winslow's lawsuit refers to Saltsman's alleged actions as a campaign consultant to Fleischmann. It states that Saltsman "improperly obtained" Winslow's confidential employment records with the state GOP, slandering him in the process.
Saltsman has denied the allegations, asking "that Winslow recover nothing in this action," court documents show.
Federal law separates campaign functions from governing. Before using donations for legal expenses, Fleischmann's office asked the Federal Election Commission, the independent regulatory agency tasked with interpreting election law, to see if such expenditures were legal.
On May 26, the commission determined that " ... the Committee may use campaign funds to pay the campaign consultant's legal fees and expenses," records show.
The lawsuit is pending. Winslow is seeking $750,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. Fleischmann's campaign has $352,000 in the bank, records show.
Reached Friday, Saltsman said the campaign followed the rules.
"I think most companies, when their employees get sued for doing their jobs, their offices cover that," he said.