PAC Appeal Hearing: Thought Crimes?

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“We believe Williamson County Schools are an extremely strong asset in this community. We think our schools are on the right path, and we want to support and strengthen public education in our county. Not surprisingly, we want to make sure that the priorities of local elected officials reflect these values as well.” (Open Letter to Williamson County, 6/24/14)

The statement above is one of several that the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance (TREF) argues makes us an unregistered PAC subject to a $5000 fine. Our hearing before the administrative law judge will be at 9 a.m. on Thursday, November 3, and Friday, November 4, at 404 James Robertson Parkway in Nashville.

This hearing is the next stop in our nearly two-year ordeal that began with the complaint Susan Curlee filed against us with the TREF in December 2014. Despite the fact that we made no contributions to candidates and did not endorse, Curlee and the group of local activists who worked with her on the complaint argued that we were guilty of being an illegal PAC. (Curlee also falsely stated to the TREF as well as to national and local media that we were a “front group” for unions, George Soros, and the Pearson Publishing Company.)

The Registry has behaved idiosyncratically throughout this entire process, as we have covered previously.

  • Read One of These Things Is Not Like the Other to see how the Registry broke with their entire history and interpreted the law in ways they never have before, according to their own Executive Director.
  • Glen Casada, Susan Curlee, and the Registry shows the ways in which Curlee kept state Rep. Glen Casada in the loop on the progress of the case and asked him to influence the Registry.
  • Click here for the ways the Registry tried to find “contributions” to hold against us.
  • Despite the ongoing nature of the case as well as a federal lawsuit filed against the TREF, the Registry has deleted their correspondence with Susan Curlee as well as multiple other records related to our case.

As we head into this hearing, this case has narrowed.

  • TREF wrote in their original fine assessment order that we had destroyed evidence. They have now acknowledged that they fabricated the claim and that we did not destroy evidence.
  • We did non-candidate-specific get-out-the vote calls to encourage people to vote in the 2014 election. Despite multiple affidavits, a script, and no evidence for Curlee’s false allegation that we had encouraged people to vote for specific candidates, the TREF refused to believe that we did not advocate for specific candidates. The administrative law judge agreed with our motion to dismiss that part of the case given that the statute specifically says non-candidate-specific get-out-the-vote drives are expressly allowed under the statute as a non-PAC activity.

The Basics

  • We are an online publication covering school issues, including the Williamson County School Board.
  • One of us—Sarah Barnard—spent $116.72 on publication-related expenses leading up to the 2014 election. Williamson Strong didn’t endorse candidates, and we never made any contributions.
  • We were fined $5000, and two TREF members voted to fine us $20,000 in May 2015.

The Registry’s Position

In recent motions and briefings, the Registry has made their position clear. It doesn’t matter that we didn’t endorse candidates. It doesn’t matter that we made no contributions to candidates. The Registry contends that what matters is what we were thinking when we wrote what we wrote. Things we may have considered doing but decided not to do also somehow make us a PAC.

According to the TREF, we are guilty of being a PAC because of what we thought. This is a break with state and federal law, 30 years of precedence, their decisions in every other case they have reviewed, and their previous statements.

This is a new argument from the TREF, but it isn’t a surprise to us. They have shifted arguments throughout this case. They have broken their own rules. They have ignored public records laws and they have deleted documents – including those at issue in a pending federal law suit.

We have no bets on what will happen here, but we will keep you posted.

 

 

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