Tennessee tradition of last-minute political fundraisers before start of legislative session ban endures

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, presides over the House on the first day of the 2020 legislative session, Jan. 14, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee Republicans plan to carve fast-growing Nashville into multiple congressional seats, making it potentially easier for the state's Republican-dominated congressional delegation to flip a previously Democratic-controlled district, House Speaker Cameron Sexton confirmed Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE -A number of Tennessee lawmakers were holding last-minute political fundraisers or making email appeals for contributions Monday and into early Tuesday in advance of the General Assembly's 2022 legislative session that starts Tuesday at noon, when a blanket ban on their ability to raise campaign cash takes effect.

Among those holding events Monday were House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, who sought a "minimum suggested donation" of $250 for a breakfast event to benefit his CAM PAC leadership political action committee at the Nashville City Club, according to a copy of the invitation obtained by the Times Free Press.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, held his own event Monday at noon at Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse with price tags ranging from $5,000 for a "sponsor" category with four attendees, $2,500 for a "host" with two attendees and $1,000 for one person, according to his invite.

Minority Democrats, meanwhile, made their own appeals for contributions, with all 26 Democratic House members and the six Democratic senators signing on to a letter sent via email Monday for a fundraising event scheduled for Tuesday morning.

All the activity is legal until both chambers convene at noon CST.

And then it's not, thanks to a mid-1990s law that says lawmakers cannot collect campaign funds after the House and Senate gavel themselves into session. Violations can result in civil penalties of up to $10,000. The law ended an age-old practice under which lawmakers could and did lawfully accept money from special interests and others at any time during session, even as legislators considered and acted on legislation those interests supported or opposed.

Dick Williams, the longtime voluntary chairman of Common Cause Tennessee, who has lobbied state lawmakers on ethics and campaign-finance related issues since 1975, said the restrictions have been for the good.

"The main thing is timing," Williams said Monday in a Times Free Press telephone interview. "There's always a concern about whether campaign contributions are intended to have specific results, and that is more likely to happen if it's during the session and there's a lot of discussion about a bill or part of a bill or issue and persons flooding the contributions to people who are most likely to influence the issue.

"We feel the public has a legitimate rationale for enforcing certain limits on the contributions, including the ban during the session. I imagine there's a lot of fundraising that is going to happen in the next day or two."

McNally spokesperson Adam Kleinheider said in a statement to the Times Free Press on Monday that "Lt. Governor McNally supports the session fundraising ban and scheduled his fundraiser in compliance with that law.

"Lt. Governor McNally has been consistent in his conservative principles for over 40 years and welcomes the support of any Tennessean who, like him, believes in fiscal responsibility, small government and low taxes," Kleinheider added.

During the mid-to-late 1980s, McNally secretly aided the FBI in its "Rocky Top" investigation of the state's corruption-riddled nonprofit charitable bingo industry. Professional gamblers and other operators took over the state charters of legitimate Tennessee charities to run illegal gambling operations, siphoning off larges sums for themselves. A relative newcomer to the Senate at the time, McNally wore a wire for the FBI in which he portrayed himself as a bribable lawmaker, accepting cash payments from the state's former chief bingo inspector, a Marion Countian who later went to jail.

The investigation resulted in numerous other convictions, including a prominent state representative, as well as the suicides of the then-Tennessee secretary of state and a Knoxville representative caught up in the problem.

In a statement to the Times Free Press on Monday, Sexton spokesman Doug Kufner said "the practice of hosting fundraisers on the day before the start of a legislative session is not uncommon and has occurred regularly among members of both parties in recent years.

"Since fundraising is prohibited when the General Assembly is in session, Speaker Sexton also held his event today [Monday], which is in full compliance with current state law," Kufner added.

House and Senate Democrats have a joint event Tuesday morning in which they're asking for a $5,000 contribution from people designated as "chair," with hosts paying $2,500 and co-hosts paying $1,000.

House Minority Leader Karen Camper, D-Memphis, said House and Senate Democrats have been working to build deeper relationships this year "just at every single level."

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic put a crimp on timing, Camper said.

"Before we go in, we do need to try to have our fundraiser," she said. "People try not to have them during holiday season."

Camper said she wasn't in the legislature in the 1980s or 1990s, and by the time she was elected, the in-session fundraising ban was in effect.

"It was always the way it is now," she said. "You couldn't raise while you were in [session], you know, you had a date on the wall in May or after session, so it was kind of all-out or no. I could see that it could be problematic if you're raising funds while you're in session."

In an email sent out Monday by his campaign, Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, noted lawmakers in the GOP-controlled legislature this year will be looking at education funding, the election process and redistricting.

Noting he isn't allowed to accept contributions once session begins, he asked, "if you agree with me we need a more balance approach to governing in Tennessee, please click here to make a contribution in the next 21 hours."

Hakeem said in a telephone interview Monday evening he is doing a social media fundraiser, mostly with constituents, citing health and safety concerns during COVID-19.

"On the one hand, I look at it as actual legislators are limited during the time session is going on and potential opponents, to my understanding, have no restrictions so far as efforts to raise money," Hakeem said. "I think we have to take advantage of the opportunity when we can, so I guess I don't have a problem with the last-minute approach.

"Like I said, you're taking into consideration we've had limited opportunities face-to-face. Zoom, some people tell us, is the route to go. So my group decided this is what we would do since we're in a sense of speaking against the clock."

Tennessee Common Cause veteran Williams said, "I've gotten a couple of emails from legislators pointing out that the deadline is coming. Some of them don't remember the policy that gets me off the hook - I don't contribute to anyone. I think contributions are a legitimate component but feel [it's] better not to contribute to any candidate. That's convenient to my budget, too, both from principle and pocketbook."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.