Today the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance voted unanimously not to appeal Judge Michael Begley’s ruling that Williamson Strong did not act as a PAC in 2014. This makes the Judge’s 3/28 ruling final.
“Five proactive parents courageously stood up to the Registry’s unlawful prosecution of Williamson Strong, to protect not only their own rights but those of all Tennesseans to vigorously defend public schools. The Registry’s shameful choice to punish these parents and spend tax dollars persecuting parents instead of fully funding our schools shows just how backwards our state government’s priorities are. Today’s decision is a welcome turning point but not the end of Williamson Strong’s long fight to hold the Registry accountable.” – Tony Orlandi, Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings, PLLC
The case stemmed from a civil complaint filed by former Williamson County School Board member Susan Curlee in December 2014, 28 months ago. Curlee assembled the complaint with help of local activists, including Franklin Alderman Bev Burger.
The hearing in front of Judge Begley was de novo, which means it was not a review of the previous hearings but rather a new hearing on the same original question.
The question was simply this: Did Williamson Strong break the law and act as an illegal PAC? And the answer was and is unequivocally no.
This experience was pretty terrible. The state government (working closely with Curlee) said that we destroyed evidence and broke the law. That’s serious stuff, especially when we did neither of those things.
Of course, we still do not have an answer to our remaining question: Why?
Why did the Registry do what they did? Why did two registry members – Tom Lawless and Tom Morton – vote to fine us $20,000? Why did four members – Lawless and Morton in addition to Patricia Heim and Norma Lester – vote to fine us $5,000?
Why did the Registry violate 27 years of precedent and our due process? Why did they make new rules just for us? Why were they so aggressive in prosecuting us for over two years even when they were wrong in doing so? Why did they fabricate a claim that we destroyed evidence? Why did they destroy their own records, including their communications with Curlee?
We’ll come back to some of these questions—and some additional questions—at a later date. We are grateful to the court for the painstaking review of this case. We are also tremendously grateful for all the support we have received from so many of you in Williamson County and across the state. If we had broken the law, we would have just paid the fine. But we didn’t. And we weren’t going to pay a fine just because Susan Curlee wanted us to shut up.
A former school board member filed a campaign finance complaint against Williamson Strong in December 2014. 28 months later, we have been vindicated!
We’re still digesting the 16-page order from the Administrative Law Judge, but you can read it along with us. The ruling says that Williamson Strong did not make statements of express advocacy for or against particular candidates in the 2014 WCSB elections. It also states that we functioned as a media organization. So basically we won two ways.
“After consideration of this entire record in this matter, it is determined that the Respondents did not constitute a political campaign committee with respect to the 2014 election. It is therefore ORDERED that the Registry’s charges against the respondents are DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.”
(“In the formal legal world a court case that is ‘dismissed with prejudice’ means that it is dismissed permanently. A case dismissed with prejudice is over and done with, once and for all, and can’t be brought back to court.”)
We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to our stalwart attorneys at Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings, PLLC especially to Tony Orlandi, Jim Stranch, and Gerard Stranch who stood by us throughout the whole ordeal. THANK YOU!
“This ruling vindicates these five parents, who acted merely as concerned citizens voicing their opinions on issues of public education, just like other news organizations. The ruling also confirms that Susan Curlee’s inflammatory allegations were baseless and that the Registry of Election Finance should have reached this decision from the outset. It is unfortunate that it required two years of expensive litigation to achieve justice, but our clients are grateful for this outcome.” – Tony Orlandi