We wanted to update you on the Williamson Strong campaign finance case from a million years ago. (For those of you who are newer to the district, or newer to following Williamson Strong, read here for background.) More than five years ago, former Williamson County School Board member Susan Curlee (with support of Rep. Glen Casada and Franklin Alderman Bev Burger) filed a campaign finance complaint against us claiming we were an illegal PAC. It was ridiculous on its face; we neither raised nor donated money to candidates. Nevertheless, the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance fined us $5000 in May 2015. (Two of the five members present voted for a $20,000 fine.) We appealed the ruling, which means it went before a judge. Three years ago, after two years of puzzlingly aggressive prosecution by the state (including subpoenaing our employment records, fabricating charges of destroying records, etc.), the judge ruled that Williamson Strong “did not constitute a PAC” and dismissed the case.
As the judge said, Registry members Patricia Heim, Tom Lawless, Tom Morton, and Norma Lester acted against the law, against the counsel of their professional staff, and against 27 years of precedent and standards in this case. The judge said we were essentially a media organization and also that we simply did not meet the standards for a PAC at all.
Earlier this year, the judge ruled that the state has to pay our attorneys $166,867.97 for defending us in this matter over five years. The judge cited guidance from the Tennessee Court of Appeals regarding attorneys fees, including that they are warranted “if the citation was not grounded in fact and not warranted in existing law.” Such was true in our case. We are grateful for the work that Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings did on our behalf. Huge gratitude to attorneys Tony Orlandi, Jim Stranch, Gerard Stranch, Ben Gastel, Seamus Kelly, and Mike Wall for their incredible work. We are also thankful to our friends who supported us without reservation from the beginning, especially those who attended Registry hearings and provided declarations and depositions on our behalf.
We don’t know of any other case in Tennessee history in which the Registry of Election Finance has acted so clearly in the wrong that they have had to pay the fees of those whom they ruled against. This was not an ordinary proceeding, nor was it, as we believe the record makes clear, a good faith legal error.
Our efforts, from the beginning, were to preserve the integrity of Williamson County Schools and protect it from political influence. We thank everyone who joined us in working to achieve this goal over the past six years and are proud to continue our mission to make it easier for public school parents and community members to access information essential to supporting, preserving, and advancing excellence in public school education in Williamson County.