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Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney

NASHVILLE - State campaign regulators on Wednesday dismissed one of two complaints against a controversial political action committee that spent $27,467 helping candidates in 29 contested August races for the state Republican State Executive Committee.

But Republican critics later denounced the Registry of Election Finance's action as a "cover up" of activities by the Strong and Free Tennessee PAC and an affiliated group, Strong & Free Tennessee Inc., which provided the PAC with $35,000.

State Executive Committee member Mark Winslow charged both groups' activities were part of an effort to help Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney of Lookout Mountain win reelection to his post by the 66-member executive committee next month.

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Mark Winslow, a former aide to Robin Smith

"The people involved in this - it is my contention - have very close ties to the Tennessee Republican Party, the chairman of the [party] and this was an effort to remove people who were not supportive," Winslow told reporters following the hearing.

Devaney, who is seeking his third, full two-year term, has disavowed any connection with the Strong & Free groups.

But Winslow, a former state party executive director, said paperwork shows the party's comptroller, Troy Brewer, was involved.

Winslow said Devaney has "been exceptionally disinterested in getting to the bottom of this. He repeatedly claims he doesn't know anyting about this. But the fellow who's filing the form [Brewer] has an office down the hall from him.

"Chris couldn't walk down the hall and ask Troy Brewer what was going on in this PAC which was trying to take out members of his executive committee?" Winslow added.

Devaney later said in a statement that the "Tennessee Republican Party was not involved with this organization. Troy Brewer is not an employee of the TNGOP. He is a contracted consultant who works for a variety of political clients in Tennessee. As an accounting consultant, he is not required to divulge his other clients to us."

The PAC and corporation's activities are already serving as fuel by the two challengers to Devaney in the chairman's race. Joe Carr, who ran unsuccessfully from the right against U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., in the Aug. 7 GOP primary and executive committee member Karen Bennett have both cited concerns about Strong & Free Tennessee. Bennett attended Wednesday's Registry hearing.

Registry members dismissed one complaint against the Strong & Free Tennessee PAC on paperwork it filed after complaints this summer from at least one executive committee candidate, Ruth Fennell of Gallatin, that it was not properly registered.

The dismissal came came after the group's attorney, Gif Thornton, said proper paperwork was later filed with the state and two county election commissions.

Thornton said there was no intent to hide or mislead the public on the PAC's late registration..

The filing shows Strong & Free Tennessee Inc., which does not have to disclose its funders, contributed $35,000 to the PAC on July 25. It was the PAC's sole source of funding listed in its pre-election report, which is dated July 31 on the Registry's webiste.

Yet, Strong & Free Inc. did not receive coporate status from the Tennessee Secretary of State until until Aug. 2, records show.

Despite that two Registry members who are attorneys, Democrat Henry Fincher and Republican Tom Lawless, maintained Strong & Free Tennessee Inc. was legally able to make the contribution.

Thornton also said the corporation has been granted 501(c )(4) status by the Internal Revenue Service as a social welfare organization and thus is able to participate in the political process.

But in response to technical questions posed by Registry Chairman Patricia Heim about IRS requirements that 501(c )(4) corporations devote at least 60 percent of their activites to "education," Thornton revealed the PAC also spent an undisclosed sum on independent expenditures on two constitutional amendments on last week's ballot.

Neither the Strong & Free Tennessee PAC nor Strong & Free Tennessee Inc. ever registered as a referendum committee authorized to spend money on Amendment 1 (abortion) or Amendment 2 (judicial selection).

"Those have to be reported," said Drew Rawlins, the Registry's executive director.

Registry members then directed Thornton, who said he hadn't prepared to deal with that line of questioning, to come back at their next meeting with a fuller explanation.

"They operated within the law," Thornton later told reporters.

Winslow was among those attending. Earlier this year, Winslow and the state party settled a lawsuit Winslow had filed in connection with the 2010 3rd Congressional District primary between now-U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and Robin Smith, a former state party chairman.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

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