Petitioners can keep funding secret

Petitioners can keep funding secret

August 31st, 2010 by Cliff Hightower in Politics Local

Groups backing the ouster of Mayor Ron Littlefield are not required to disclose any finances to state or local officials and at least one advocacy group says that poses a potential problem.

"I would certainly advocate strengthening the law from the very beginning," said Dick Williams, state chairman of Tennessee Common Cause, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that tracks elections finances. "At least have a minimum requirement."

Three groups - Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield, the Chattanooga Tea Party and Chattanoogans Organized for Action - have banded together in recent months to force a recall of Littlefield. The Chattanooga Tea Party and Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield have said they have raised some amount of money to finance the campaign against the mayor.

But none of these groups is required to disclose any of their financial interests until the signatures are certified and the recall is placed on a ballot, according to state law. Drew Rawlins, director of the Bureau of Tennessee's Registry of Election Finance, said there is no law stating these groups have to disclose how much money they are spending, where they are getting their money from and how the money is spent.

Richard Beeland, spokesman for Littlefield, said the mayor knew where most of the money was coming from for the recall campaign.

"It's pretty obvious it's coming from the Chattanooga Tea Party and Mark West," he said.

Mr. West, president of the Chattanooga Tea Party, said his organization has taken money. He said most of the funds come from people in the area.

"It's all local business people," he said.

But he said he has also dipped into his own pocket.

"I have put my own personal finances into it as others have," he said.

So far, some of the expenses have been advertisements and mailings, he said. He said if there were any technical issues that came up the group would oblige with state law.

The groups involved in the recall effort all expressed most of their effort is a grassroots campaign with a huge amount of volunteer work being conducted. Chris Brooks, organizer for Chattanooga Organized for Action, said this week his group uses "virtually no funds."

"We're not taking money," he said.

Jim Folkner, with Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield, said his group bought a $200 advertisement with a local media company and paid for some gasoline expenses.

He said if it went to a campaign, the group would have no problem reporting it.

"We haven't raised much anyway," he said.

Mr. Rawlins said once the mayoral election goes on the ballot, all three groups would have to register, if they are raising or spending money.

"If they are going to spend money supporting or opposing [candidates], then they have to file," he said.

The financial disclosure are not retroactive, he said. The groups would only have to disclose the money they raised from the time the signatures are certified.

Williams said there should be some type of requirement at the front end so the public would have an idea where their money was going if approached by someone wanting a signature on a recall petition. He said he could look at lobbying the Tennessee General Assembly about changes in the rules.

"We might have to revisit that next year," he said.