As you may know, we are still in the middle of an appeals process regarding the June 2015 findings of the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance. Based on Susan Curlee’s December 2014 complaint that we were an “unregistered, politically active group,” the Registry sent us a show cause notice in January 2015 saying we could face civil penalties if we were determined to be a “multi-candidate political campaign committee” or a PAC. This is the definition they sent to us:
Any committee, club, corporation, 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 an aggregate amount exceeding two hundred fifty dollars ($250)
Over two quarters, we spent a total of $58.76 on website costs, $40 on stickers that said “Williamson Strong,” and $75 on a voter list so we could call people and remind them to vote. That’s it. That’s all of it. (The repeated allegations that we received money from others or are otherwise an “outside group” or a “special interest” is completely false and, at this point, a smear campaign that distracts from issues of substance related to public education in Williamson County.)
Unlike other unregistered groups involved in the 2014 school board election, we never endorsed anyone, never contributed (money or in-kind) to any candidates, and never created mailers, advertisements, or voter cards to promote candidates. (Read more about the lengths to which the Registry officials went to define various things as contributions here and here.)
The Registry decided to count all sorts of unprecedented things as Williamson Strong “contributions,” including personal emails to friends, a meeting with candidates, and Facebook posts that did not identify any candidates.
But even if everything we did were a “contribution” we still didn’t spend anywhere near that $250 per quarter floor.
So the Registry, after two hearings and without notice to us, switched gears and used a different definition to fine us. Instead of the definition they sent us in our “show cause” letter, they used this no-dollar-limit definition of a PAC:
A combination of two (2) 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, but does not include a voter registration program
So if two or more people with any shared political intent spend one cent—they’re a PAC. Every political website, every newspaper, every little group with a $5 domain hosting fee—if they say anything positive or negative about someone who is a candidate—they are, by the Registry’s definition of Williamson Strong, a “political campaign committee.”
Funny thing, though… we looked through years of minutes and never saw this definition used to determine that an unincorporated group like ours is a PAC. Our experience with the Registry was so odd it seemed… unprecedented. Now we know it was. The Registry has produced records that demonstrate that our case is the ONLY time the Registry has ever used the definition they applied to us to find a group was a PAC and levy a fine. Williamson Strong is also the first group in the history of the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance to be fined for failure to register as a PAC under any definition including the $250+/quarter one. Our $5,000 fine was the highest levied in 2015 (second was $3,500). Recall that two Registry members wanted to fine us $20,000.
Note that the Registry has put on hold three other pending complaints: The Williamson County Homeschool Coalition, the 912 Project, and Preserve Brentwood, all of which, under this new definition, constitute PACs. A complaint against Sumner Sentinel was heard in April, and Registry members struggled to reconcile the statute with the “Williamson Strong definition.” They’ll be trying to figure that out at their next meeting.
Thanks to the generosity of our attorneys at Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings, we have been able to contest this ruling. Our appeal is currently before an administrative law judge (ALJ). A few major developments:
- The Registry amended the order against us: The Registry was permitted to amend the original order to consider us individually liable. The Registry also removed some inflammatory language and reference to some of the specific Facebook posts that they said made us a PAC.
- The Registry initially claimed that we had intentionally destroyed evidence, all of which we had given them and all of which was and is still available online: They made a big issue of this in their original order, mentioning it multiple times. This was covered in the press, and, of course excitedly covered by those who have attacked us for almost two years. As part of our appeal, the Registry admitted that Williamson Strong did not in fact “spoliate evidence” and that the Registry never had proof of spoliation.
- We were deposed: Each of us was deposed in March. We were asked lots of questions about our activities before and after the August 2014 school board elections. We even fielded questions about our activity now, almost two years later.
- Curlee fought subpoena: After all of us were deposed, Ms. Curlee filed a motion to quash her and her husband’s subpoena (which included document requests and a requirement that they also be deposed). The ALJ ruled that the Curlees can be deposed on events up to the June 2015 Registry order.
Now we wait. We await documents and depositions. At this time, we still do not have a hearing date.
You may also recall that we filed a suit in federal court saying the Registry’s treatment of us was a “chilling” of free speech and raising questions about the provision under which they found us guilty. The federal court said that we would have to complete the appeals process before they would take up the case.
So whoever came up with the idea of using the Registry as a way to shut us up (and yes, we heard from another board member that this idea was shopped around) has done very well. This gets even weirder. Stay tuned for Part 2…