Before we get into what happened at the Registry, we thought we’d provide a little primer on what the law actually says. It looks like the political appointees of the Registry are making a special law just for us. Let’s look at the actual law first.
We were accused of being a Political Campaign Committee. Tennessee actually calls it a multi-candidate campaign committee, but we’ll call it a PAC as that’s the term people are familiar with. The law defines such a committee like this:
“any committee, club, association or other group of persons which receives contributions or makes expenditures to support or oppose any candidate for public office or measure during a calendar quarter in any aggregate amount exceeding two hundred fifty dollars ($250)”
OK. So if you are:
- A group,
- Receive contributions or make expenditures to support or oppose a candidate/candidates, and
- Spend more than $250 in a quarter
- YOU ARE A PAC.
Yes, that makes sense. There’s another line, though, that says a political campaign committee is:
“Two or more individuals, including any political party governing body, whether state or local, making expenditures, to support or oppose any candidate for public office or measure…”
OK. So by that definition a PAC is two people who make any expenditure to “support or oppose any candidate.”
Hold up. Don’t those definitions conflict? Why are there two?
Yes, and it beats us. Under the second definition, a couple that spends a dollar (making expenditures) for a Ted Cruz for President bumper sticker (supporting a candidate) is a PAC. Two people running a $5/month website which advocates for policies espoused by a candidate is a PAC.
So how does the Registry decide which definition to use?
That’s a very good question. In our hearing(s), the Registry didn’t discuss whether or not our incidental spending “supported or opposed candidates” (they just decided it did or they didn’t care). Even so, they were frustrated with that $250 “threshold” (as they called it). They were “grappling,” as one member put it, to get the math to add up to $250 per quarter. They really wanted to “take some action” (as another member put it) for Ms. Curlee with whom they seemed very friendly.
Then they said, nah, we don’t care. It doesn’t matter; we don’t care about that pesky $250 threshold or the “support or oppose” requirement.
Okay, so, wait a second. Let’s think about the implications there. Is Williamson Strong a group of persons or just one person?
We’re a group of persons.
Did you make ANY “expenditures to support or oppose a candidate”?
So what counts as an “expenditure” or a “contribution”?
An “expenditure” by a PAC is a “contribution” to a campaign.
The Registry’s Citizen’s Guide provides some helpful descriptions of what a contribution is: money, paying for something on behalf of a campaign (like an ad), loans, fundraising tickets.
Drew Rawlins, the Executive Director of the Registry of Election Finance, provided an explanation of what an expenditure is:
“This can be making a contribution directly or [for example] taking out an ad asking you to vote for a candidate.”
In press reports from December and January, Rawlins said that he did not see any evidence of expenditures. He explained the specific question at the heart of the complaint against Williamson Strong:
“Basically the allegations are that this group Williamson Strong was supporting or opposing candidates without being registered as a PAC,” Rawlins said. “If a group supports, and by that I mean makes contributions to, candidates, they have to register as a PAC.”
“I don’t see any actual … there are websites, but nothing where there’s been money spent to say, ‘Vote for John Doe.'”
“I did not see anything that I believe would constitute a violation, but I don’t vote.”
What is NOT a contribution according to the law?
- Volunteering. Anything a person does without being compensated for it (by anyone) is volunteering. Expenses associated with volunteering are also not considered a contribution.
- Commentary, opinion, news, and editorials.
- Encouraging people to vote.
- Anything written to ‘members or stockholders’ if such a group is not “organized primarily” to elect someone.
Those non-PAC things sound a lot like what Williamson Strong does. How much did Williamson Strong spend for the support or defeat of candidates?
Zero. Not a single cent was spent to support or oppose a candidate.
What money did Williamson Strong spend before the election?
One of us spent:
- About $40 on stickers that said ‘Williamson Strong’ to promote visibility of Williamson Strong.
- $25.39 on a Facebook ad to promote visibility of Williamson Strong (not a candidate or a group of candidates).
- $5 per month for the web hosting (May, June, July and August of 2014 were before the school board election) and $13.47 to register the Williamson Strong domain.
- $75 for a voter list. We used this for two get-out-the-vote phone banks. We made sure people knew the location and hours of voting and encouraged voters to vote. We did NOT ask people who they were voting for or encourage people to vote for any candidate or group of candidates.
That’s it? Does anything on the Williamson Strong website tell people whom to vote for or endorse people?
Did anybody get paid for any of their time/work for Williamson Strong?
No. Nobody. Ever.
OK, so Williamson Strong founders provided volunteer labor and spent a tiny bit of money on promoting Williamson Strong and hosting editorial and news content. Williamson Strong provided no contributions or in-kind contributions either as individuals or as Williamson Strong to any candidates or group of candidates. Is that right?
And is Williamson Strong actually an organization “primarily” for the election and defeat of candidates?
No. Look at entire history on Facebook and our website. All our content is there. We provided all of it to the Registry.
Hmm, so what happened at the Registry?
Two of the five Registry members voted to fine us $20,000. The Registry ultimately voted 4-1 and fined us $5,000 for failing to register as a PAC and for not filing the financial paperwork PACs are required to file.
Next up: What Happened at the Registry.
“Registry Bias” for a brief recap of the Registry’s May 13 ruling.
“About the Registry of Election Finance” for more information about Susan Curlee’s year-long campaign against the public school parents at Williamson Strong.
“Innocent!” regarding the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference (TDAGC) finding that Williamson Strong did not violate the law.
“When politicians attack! The obsession continues…” which gives an overview of the original sworn complaint and the January hearing.