Tennessee GOP finds loophole in campaign law

Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

POLITICAL DONATIONSState parties, elected state officials and political action committees were required last week to file their disclosures for the first half of the year ending June 30.GOP donations* Independent Medicine PAC -- $2,250* Corrections Corp. of America PAC -- $5,000* Tennessee Bankers Association PAC -- $5,000* Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers PAC -- $5,000* RobinsonGreen lobbyists -- $10,000* Miller & Martin lobbying/law firm -- $3,000* Bass Berry & Sims lobbying/law firm -- $3,000* Beer distributor Fred Dettwiller -- $15,000* Physician Ronald McDow -- $15,000Democrat donations* Lawyers Involved for Tennessee PAC -- $3,500* Tennessee Education Association PAC -- $5,000* Olan Mills -- $25,000Source: Financial disclosure forms

NASHVILLE - Special interests and lobbying firms with business before the General Assembly shelled out tens of thousands of dollars this spring at a Tennessee Republican Party fundraiser benefiting state GOP lawmakers despite a ban on in-session fundraising, records show.

A campaign watchdog group and Democrats are critical, but Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance Executive Director Drew Rawlins and GOP officials say holding the March 31 fundraiser at the governor's mansion was legal.

"You can do that all day long," Rawlins said.

While lawmakers can't accept contributions during the legislative session, political parties can raise funds to pay for party operations and certain political activity, he said.

Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney said "everything is above board ... We have followed the law."

Haslam spokesman David Smith said "the event was not out of the ordinary."

State parties, elected state officials and political action committees were required last week to file their disclosures for the first half of the year ending June 30. The state GOP's Legislative Campaign Committee's filing showed a number individuals, business and groups, including political action committees, gave money during the session.

Among them were the Tennessee Medical Association, liquor retailers and Corrections Corp. of America, all of which had business before the legislature.

Dick Williams of Tennessee-Common Cause, a public watchdog group, noted that "several of those contributors obviously had something significant before the legislature."

"Hopefully, some of these are folks just interested in supporting good government," he said, "but it's not a coincidence that most of the larger ones are identified with major legislation."

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester called the Haslam-hosted fundraiser a "shakedown."

"It is of great concern to me that the governor would conduct a fundraiser at the residence in the middle of session and accept contributions from people who had significant legislative issues on the table and the legislation had direct financial impact on these companies," Forrester said.

"Certainly," he added, "the spirit of the prohibition to raise money during session was in my view violated, if not the letter of the law."

He said former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and the Tennessee Democratic Party "never conducted a fundraiser during the session during the entire time Bredesen was governor."

Unlike Haslam, Bredesen never lived at the governor's residence. But Forrester emphasized that Bredesen "never during the eight years [in office] hosted an event during the legislative session to raise money."

Bredesen did host fundraisers for legislative Democrats and the party outside of the in-session ban, which went into effect in 1996.

State GOP Chairman Devaney dismissed Forrester's charges.

"I think the bottom line is they [Democrats] have nothing positive to talk about," Devaney said. "They have no plan, no leadership, no money. And so the only thing they have to do is throw darts."

He said Republican lawmakers, who control both chambers of the General Assembly, did not raise money for the event.

"The only people who raised money for that event was the state party and the people on our finance committee," Devaney said.

He said "very few" GOP lawmakers attended the event. And while the party's state account is called the Tennessee Legislative Campaign, Devaney said it is for the entire party.

But he acknowledged the money is used for state campaigns, including legislative campaigns, as well as for state party expenses.

The Medical Association, which represents physicians, was supporting Haslam's ultimately successful plan to cap non-economic damages like pain and suffering in medical malpractice and other personal injury lawsuits.

Corrections Corp. of America, which runs prisons nationwide, supported Haslam's budgetary reversal of a Bredesen decision to quit using a CCA-run prison. Bankers fought the newspaper industry over public notices involving foreclosures, but both sides came to a compromise. Liquor store owners successfully battled grocery stores over allowing wine sales.

The Tennessee Democratic Party's own disclosure shows it received contributions from several groups with business before lawmakers during this year's legislative session, including a political action committee operated by trial lawyers, who fought the lawsuit caps. The PAC gave $3,500 to Democrats.

Another PAC operated by the Tennessee Education Association, which waged an unsuccessful battle against gutting collective bargaining, gave $5,000 to Democrats during the session.

Several unions contributed smaller amounts.

According to Rawlins with the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, money raised during a legislative session can be used for political party expenses such as rent and salaries as well as get-out-the-vote activities and even television ads so long as they do not expressly support or oppose a particular candidate.

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