Secrets and Lies and Campaign Finance

Who you gonna believe? Me, or your lying eyes?

It’s that simple, really. When lawyers for former school board candidate Thom Druffel and Stand for Children came before the Registry of Election Finance’s board last week, they faced record fines and an accusation that Druffel and Dan O’Donnell, Stand’s Nashville PAC director, had illegally coordinated their activity in the last weeks of the election. So Druffel and O’Donnell filed declarations to the board that said, in essence, “Nope, that’s not what we were doing.”

And, just like that, the board voted unanimously to make the charges go away.

It didn’t matter that O’Donnell was caught on camera going to see Druffel. It didn’t matter that Druffel gave an on-camera interview to WSMV — one that was arranged, not an ambush — in which he said, “I think we were trying to detail for the last 10 days what we were going to do and nothing more than that.” It didn’t matter that the Martha O’Bryan Center had been caught soliciting canvassers from its staff — a big no-no for a nonprofit — in an attempt to shore up Stand for Children’s ground game. It didn’t matter that O’Donnell took a vacation day to “volunteer” for Druffel’s campaign just days before an election on which his PAC had spent generously to affect the outcome.

“I just don’t like to rely on what’s printed [in media accounts], because sometimes things can be misconstrued or mistaken,” said board member Norma Lester as she cast doubt on what Druffel said in the moment when asked a straightforward question. Nope, Lester prefers to rely on statements that have been immaculately lawyered.

The whole affair raises the question of whether anyone besides an enemy of state House Majority Leader Glen Casada (R-Franklin) would ever be penalized by this registry board (more on that in a second).

The idea that O’Donnell was just on vacation is absurd on its face. Statutes about volunteering on your own time were never intended to give directors of political action committees an out; they’re in place so state workers can exercise their political rights and not engage in a partisan campaign on government time. 

“The reality is that if this doesn’t rise to the level of coordination during a blackout period, if this level of proof isn’t enough, then there probably isn’t going to be a level of proof that is good enough for this board,” says attorney Gerard Stranch, who represented the complainant in the case. “His own words were that they were meeting to coordinate the activities of our staffs.”

The registry does one thing well — it fines a campaign if it doesn’t file its disclosures on time. Beyond that, though, it’s a very mixed bag. After setting out a potential fine of more than $600,000 for Stand’s activities, for example, the registry did little more investigation than just asking for declarations and reading media reports. For a case as serious as this — Stand for Children pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into school board races through a PAC and an independent expenditure committee — there ought to be more digging, even if it’s politically unpalatable to the board. The attitude of the entire registry seemed to be that because Druffel had lost, the case was somewhat moot, never mind the fact that Stand for Children will be back in the next campaign cycle. The precedent that they’re setting is that short of hearing from a whistleblower, someone who was inside the campaign, nothing will move the registry into action.

“I think if we’d had discovery, you would have heard a different story in there,” Stranch says. And he’s right to this degree: If you want to know what actually happened, look at how the campaigns acted, not what they say after they’ve talked to counsel. Examine payroll records, receipts and emails. Allow depositions. 

Of course, that would send the registry down the path they took with Williamson Strong, a group of Williamson County residents who are accused of being a PAC. After wingnut Susan Curlee, an ally of Glen Casada on the county school board, filed a complaint with the registry in 2014, the registry ruled that the group was a PAC when Williamson Strong spent $116 on a website and published articles about right-wing influence in school board elections. 

After going after Williamson Strong so hard, why not go after Stand for Children? Maybe after losing most of their Williamson Strong case before an administrative-law judge last month, the registry is a little gun-shy. Still, the optics are terrible: They’re willing to prosecute a citizens group in Williamson County, but not a pro-charter PAC backed by big money from its national parent. 

All of this, of course, points to the problems in our campaign finance system, where rules let players like Stand position themselves on the edges and throw money (and canvassers and direct mail) in huge gobs, outspending the candidates themselves. 

If the registry would dig a little more, they might see it. But then they’d have to trust their lying eyes.

Like what you read?

Click here to make a contribution to the Scene and support local journalism!