Gov. Bill Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell have quietly channeled at least $91,800 to 24 Republican legislative candidates without disclosing who gave them the money to distribute.
The money maneuver, coordinated with the Tennessee Republican Party, is by all accounts legal. GOP officials checked with Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Registry of Election Finance, to make sure before setting up a separate, special bank account for money raised by Haslam and Harwell.
But Dick Williams, president of Common Cause Tennessee, said the arrangement “dilutes the whole concept of disclosure.” A Democratic Party spokesman called it a “secret political slush fund.”
The Harwell-Haslam fund was never publicly disclosed when it was set up earlier this year. Spokesmen for the governor, House speaker and state Republican Party all acknowledged its existence in response to News Sentinel inquiries, however, and Harwell’s office provided a list of 24 candidates who got donations ranging from $7,100 to $2,000 each.
All but four are Republicans seeking election to their first term in the state House. The four exceptions are incumbent Republicans facing tough re-election races on Tuesday — Reps. John Ragan of Oak Ridge, David Hawk of Greeneville, Jim Gotto of Nashville and Tim Wirgau of Buchanan.
A list of those who donated to the special account, known as the Governor’s Leadership Fund, was not provided.
Adam Nickas, executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party, said providing a list would require getting the information from the party’s comptroller and that there was no opportunity to do so last week.
According to those involved, the governor and House speaker solicited donations to the Governor’s Leadership Fund and, when they were received, the money was placed in a separate bank account overseen by the state Republican Party. Contributions from the fund were then sent to the candidates through the state GOP’s main political action committee, the Tennessee Legislative Campaign Committee, or TLCC.
“It’s acting under the umbrella of the Tennessee Legislative Campaign Committee,” said Nickas. “We (state party officials) at the end of the day are custodians of the money and decide how it is spent.”
The Governor’s Leadership Fund may be likened to a PAC within a PAC. But, legally speaking, so long as Harwell and Haslam do not direct where the money goes, after they collected as fundraisers for the party, they do not need to register as a PAC.
Asked if party officials would ever reject the governor and House speaker’s joint recommendations on which candidates should get money from the fund, Nickas replied, “They may offer advice, but we make the decisions.”
The donations made to the Governor’s Leadership Fund, though kept in a separate bank account, are listed along with about $880,000 in donations made this year to the TLCC in disclosure reports filed with the Registry of Election Finance. The contributions to candidates are, in turn, included in the TLCC’s overall list as well.
Williams of Common Cause Tennessee said the setup “certainly isn’t normal procedure” and could be seen as “a de facto secret slush fund” in that the money is raised and distributed with no separate reporting.
Asked if keeping the information secret was an objective of the fund, Haslam spokesman David Smith replied in an email: “Not at all — this was a specific and targeted joint effort by the governor and speaker to raise money for House candidates to strengthen the GOP majority in the Legislature.”
Smith said expenditures and contributions are reported by the TLCC. He noted that the House Republican Caucus, which also collects and spends money on behalf of Republican House candidates, focuses on helping incumbent Republicans.
“This fund gives the governor and speaker the flexibility to raise money for incumbents as well as Republican challengers in the effort to strengthen the party’s majority in the House,” he said.
Harwell was not available for an interview, but relayed this comment through a spokeswoman: “From the beginning, we knew the Tennessee Republican Party, the governor, and myself would be working very closely to see that Republicans were elected to the Legislature. In the course of those efforts, we created this entity to bolster the support we could offer to our House candidates. I am proud of the work we have done to elect Republicans to the Tennessee General Assembly, and I am proud of their hard work during these campaigns.”
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner said the arrangement may be legal, but probably shouldn’t be.
“Beth Harwell should report who she gets money from and gives it to. Bill Haslam should report where he gets money and who he gives it to,” said Turner, who said he intends to file legislation next year on PACs and campaign finance disclosure laws. Williams said there should be a “comprehensive discussion” of overhauling state campaign finance laws.
Brandon Puttbrese, communications director of the Tennessee Democratic Party, said the fund is in line with Haslam’s previous moves that reduce disclosure, starting with changing an executive order so that executive branch officials do not have to disclose the amount of their income, only the sources.
“Since his first day in office, Gov. Bill Haslam has shown that he has little regard for transparency in government and politics. Operating a secret, political slush fund with Speaker Beth Harwell to dodge PAC spending limits looks like business as usual for their special interest machine,” said Puttbrese.
Republican legislative candidates who received contributions from the Governor’s Leadership Fund as provided by House Speaker Beth Harwell’s office:
$7,100: Gary Loe (13th House District, Knox County)
$7,100: John Ragan (33rd District, Anderson County)
$7,100: Charles Williamson (50th District, Davidson County)
$7,100: Ben Claybaker (53rd District, Davidson County)
$7,100: Billy Spivey (65th District, Marshall County)
$7,100: Barry Doss (70th District, Lawrence County)
$7,100: Mary Littleton (78th District, Dickson County)
$7,100: Debra Moody (81st District, Tipton County)
$5,000: Jim Gotto (60th District, Davidson County)
$3,000: David Hawk (5th District, Greene County)
$3,000: Tim Wirgau (75th District, Henry County)
$2,000: Timothy Hill (3rd District, Sullivan County)
$2,000: Micah Van Huss (6th District, Washington County)
$2,000: Tilman Goins (10th District, Hamblen County)
$2,000: Dale Carr (12th District, Sevier County)
$2,000: Andrew Farmer (17th District, Sevier County)
$2,000: Ron Travis (31st District, Rhea County)
$2,000: Mike Carter (29th District, Hamilton County)
$2,000: Dawn White (37th District, Rutherford County)
$2,000: William Lamberth (44th District, Sumner County)
$2,000: Susan Lynn (57th District, Wilson County)
$2,000: Jeremy Durham (65th District, Williamson County)
$2,000: Roger Kane (89th District, Knox County)$2,000:
Kent Calfee (32nd District, Roane County)