Just when we thought the state's so-called ethics watchdog—the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance—was finally going to start doing its job, it's backing down
from the record fine levied last month against state Sen. Jerry Cooper for making personal use of $94,000 in donations to his reelection campaign. Cooper is a Democrat and, perhaps not coincidentally, the registry member who pushed yesterday to delay the $120,000 fine was George Harding, one of the board's Democratic appointees.
Harding and the registry are coming under fire
this morning for deciding to ask the state attorney general whether Cooper's fine surpasses the limit under the law. The registry thought it could fine Cooper up to $10,000 for each of the 23 checks he wrote to transfer the money from his campaign account. But Harding thinks the maximum fine is $10,000 or 15 percent of the total amount in question or, in Cooper's case, about $14,000. That would mean that Cooper would make an $80,000 profit on his misdeed—not a bad bargain. As it has been pointed out, such a good deal might entice other lawmakers to pilfer their campaign treasuries.
In an interview this morning with Pith in the Wind
, Harding defended himself against criticisms that, basically, he's a party hack out to let Democrats get away with violating ethics laws.
“My being a Democrat has nothing to do with my feelings,” said Harding, a former Wilson County commissioner and road superintendent. “I'm a big Democrat. I'm a yellow-dog Democrat, but this has nothing to do with that. Politics has nothing to do with it.”
Harding insisted he's only trying to follow the law. “I'm not trying to take up for Senator Cooper,” Harding said. “I think he did an absolutely bad thing. He violated the law and he should be punished. But he has to be punished according to what the law says.”
Harding said he doesn't necessary agree that fines should be limited to $10,000. But “I didn't write the law. The legislators have taken care of themselves. I don't blame 'em. If I was in the legislature, I'd probably do the same thing.”
For his part, Cooper, predictably, has a really fuzzy memory
of what he did with that money. "I'm really not sure, I don't have any receipts, what I spent that money for.... Can you remember what you did a year ago? I mean, I just can't remember."