The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance said it had been "weaponized" in the state House District 43 race and refused to investigate a complaint that Rep. Paul Sherrell wrote checks to volunteer fire halls and asked for cash back.
"What we're being asked here is to assume that Mr. Sherrell is a crook, bottom line. We're to assume he is conducting illegal activity," board member Tom Lawless said, because Sherrell bought ham breakfasts for firefighters, "for a bunch of guys that are going out and running the risk of getting their ass killed putting a fire out."
Lawless said he's sure Sherrell was buying firefighters "granola and yogurt and not sausage and biscuits to protect them."
As a result, Sherrell's opposition gets to call him a "thief, a liar and a crook. And I'm sorry, this is weaponization," said Lawless, who called for the vote to take no action against Sherrell.
Registry Chairman Paige Burcham Dennis agreed, saying, "People cannot use us to target candidates."
The comments from registry members came Wednesday.
Nevertheless, the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance urged Sherrell to make contributions differently in the future and to document all donations.
"Find out beforehand how many breakfasts you're going to pay for and have that documentation," Bill Young, executive director of the bureau, said.
The registry took up the matter based on a sworn complaint by Sparta resident Dale Walker, director of the Tennessee Pastors Network, who claimed Sherrell went to a ham breakfast at the Cassville Volunteer Fire Department, where he wrote a $100 check and asked for $90 in cash back. Walker said he filed the complaint only after several people brought the matter to his attention and noted that the White County sheriff had told Sherrell he needed to "straighten this out."
Sherrell, a Sparta Republican, is running for re-election to the House District 43 seat against Republican Bobby Robinson in the August primary and could face Democrat Cheryl Womack Uselton in November.
The registry made its decision based, in part, on Sherrell's claim that the complaint is being used against him in the campaign.
The Sparta Republican told board members during a phone call-in at its quarterly meeting he contacted the board's auditor as soon as the matter came up and told bureau officials he wasn't "trying to cover things up."
In addition to a letter to Young saying the cash wasn't used for personal expenses, Sherrell presented the registry with letters from the chiefs of Eastland and Cherry Creek volunteer fire departments that said he wrote checks out of his campaign account on Dec. 4, 2021, Feb. 5, 2022, and March 5, 2022, at Eastland and Dec. 11, 2021, and Feb. 12, 2022, at Cherry Creek and requested cash back and used the checks as receipts. The letters note most volunteer fire departments average between five and seven breakfasts each year.
"I am asking for your verification that I have been attending most of the monthly breakfasts at the above named volunteer fire department," the letter says.
He did not provide a letter from Cassville Volunteer Fire Department, the origin of the complaint. And nowhere in the letters did he claim to use the cash back to pay for breakfast for firefighters or any other constituents.
Cassville Chief Teddy Stockton told the Tennessee Lookout on Tuesday that Sherrell wrote a check to the volunteer department to buy one breakfast and requested and received $90 in cash back.
Asked if he gave the rest of the money to firefighters to buy their breakfasts, Stockton said, "I don't think so, sir."
The registry's attorney, Lauren Topping, told board members the question appeared to be whether Sherrell was pocketing a portion of the cash he got back. She noted the registry has no evidence about how he used the money other than his statements.
Registry member Hank Fincher, of Cookeville, said people came to him first with the complaint about Sherrell, and he told them to take up the matter with the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance.
"The problem here is dealing in cash," Fincher said. "Not that there's anything inherently wrong or bad about it, but it's just hard to trace. "
Following a unanimous vote, Sherrell sounded as if he was crying when he said, "Thank you, and praise the Lord."
During discussion with the board, though, Sherrell said Walker had visited his Nashville legislative office and was unkind to his administrative assistant. As a result, he "just about told" Walker he wasn't welcome at his office but apparently didn't follow through with the comment.
"He's not happy with me. He is working against me. Yes, he lives in the area that my competition is living in. I'm just trying to do, hopefully, the best I can, and, yes, I do make mistakes. And if I have made a mistake, I'm sorry," Sherrell said.
Reached for comment after the vote, Walker said he was "absolutely not" trying to use the registry board as a weapon against Sherrell. He declined to identify which candidate he is supporting in this year's election.
"I'm not a politician. I'm a pastor," he said, reiterating he filed the sworn complaint only after numerous people told him Sherrell was writing checks to volunteer fire departments and asking for cash back. He added that he felt the registry was the proper entity to answer their questions.
Walker said the registry should have investigated the complaint and subpoenaed all documents involving Sherrell's breakfast checks.
"This is the kind of stuff that causes voters to have questions about the whole political process," he said. "This is why people don't vote."
Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.
Lee University to bar students from 'identifying' or 'behaving' as a different gender, as new policy draws criticism