Attorney General says political fundraisers at TN governor's mansion, state property legal

The counsel of Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III on a possible lawsuit by the state legislature over refugees being placed in the state could be helpful.
The counsel of Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III on a possible lawsuit by the state legislature over refugees being placed in the state could be helpful.

NASHVILLE - Holding campaign fundraisers at Tennessee's governor's mansion and other state property is legal, says Attorney General Herbert Slatery in a legal opinion.

Tennessee law "does not prohibit elected state officials from using state property, including the Executive Residence, for campaign-related activities," Slatery wrote in response to a series of questions posed by state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville.

And in a second unrelated legal opinion, responding to questions posed by state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, Slatery said social media accounts like Facebook and Twitter that are created and maintained by a municipality can be a matter of public record under the state's Open Records Act.

"To the extent a municipal social media account is made 'pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business,' that account and any comments posted on the account constitute public records subject to inspection under the Tennessee Public Records Act [sic]," Slatery's opinion says.

With regard to the political fund raising issue, Clemmons requested the legal opinion following last year's use of the Curtiswood Lane mansion for a campaign fundraiser for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

Acting on the request of U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., Republican Gov. Bill Haslam allowed the mansion fundraising event to take place.

Both Clemmons and state Senate Democratic Leader Lee Harris of Memphis later blasted the use of the taxpayer-supported mansion for a campaign fundraiser.

Tennessee governors, both Democrats and Republicans, have for decades held or allowed political fundraising at the mansion. Campaign fundraisers have been held in the past at other state-owned venues by Republican and Democratic legislators over the years as well.

That's because Tennessee's "Little Hatch Act" specifically includes an escape hatch for the state's elected politicians.

The provision declares it illegal to use public buildings or facilities for meetings or preparation of campaign activity in support of any any particular candidate, party or measure."

That is "unless reasonably equal opportunity is provided for presentation of all sides or views, or reasonably equal access to the buildings or facilities is provided all sides."

In his response to a series of related questions posed by Clemmons, Slatery also said the state's Campaign Financial Disclosure Act "would require the disclosure of such [public] expenditures if they constitute either a 'contribution' or an 'expenditure' as defined under the Act."

It's unclear how a state campaign financial disclosure requirement would apply in Rubio's case. It's not known who or what entity footed the bill. Moreover, Rubio himself is a federal office holder and presumably not covered by the state's campaign disclosure law.

Clemmons also asked whether state law requires public disclosure of the governor's "non-personal schedule, including non-personal events."

Slatery opined "to the extent that the Governor's non-public schedule, including non-personal events at the Executive Residence, meets the definition of 'public record' as set forth" in state law, "then it is subject to disclosure under Tennessee's Public Records Act [sic], unless a state law provides otherwise."

Both Haslam and his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, have claimed they did not have to turn even their non-personal schedules over to news organizations.

Slatery, Haslam's former legal counsel, said in the opinion that that "one state law that does provide otherwise [to disclosure] is the common law deliberative process privilege, also referred to as the 'executive privilege.'"

It "exempts from disclosure the deliberative and mental processes of the executive," Slatery wrote.

"Thus, to the extent that disclosure of events on the Governor's non-personal schedule would disclose the Governor's deliberative and mental processes, the Governor's non-personal schedule is protected from disclosure under deliberative process/executive privilege," he added.

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