Christopher Hale has positioned himself as an ascending star in the Tennessee Democratic Party over the last two years, culminating in his victory in the District 4 Congressional primary in August. But at the same time the photogenic, hard-charging Hale has ridden a wave of clever social media posts to strong fundraising numbers for his Congressional bid, his political career has been dogged behind the scenes by questions of bad checks, broken fundraising promises and accusations of fraudulent activity related to a defunct nonprofit.
Hale is the decided underdog in his race against incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Desjarlais, R-South Pittsburg, who won the seat in 2010 and drubbed his most recent Democratic challenger by 30 points in 2018. But, Hale outraised Desjarlais during the second quarter this year, carved out a strong following on Twitter and apparently has given Democrats the prospect of a young, talented politician for the future.
If Hale is to reach his potential, he’ll have to overcome concerns about his ethics, trustworthiness and oversight of his financial affairs.
Over the last 16 months, Hale has bounced two campaign contribution checks to other candidates, multiple Democratic party sources told the Tennessee Lookout, including a $2,000 contribution to attend a fundraiser in 2019 for former Vice President Joe Biden. Hale also bounced a $2,500 check in July 2019 to the Tennessee Democratic Party. In recent months, Hale has also been accused of fraud in Washington D.C. related to his use of an email list from a defunct nonprofit he had previously worked for to solicit funds for a new for-profit company registered under his name.
Sources declined to comment, because they did not want to be on record publicly criticizing a prominent Democratic candidate.
In response to questions about the bounced checks and other financial issues, Hale issued a series of denials. Hale, a 31-year-old Murfreesboro resident, said he was invited by friends within the Biden campaign to attend the May 2019 fundraiser hosted by Nashville businessman Bill Freeman without a donation check. Democratic organizer Chip Forrester said no one was allowed to attend the event without making the campaign contribution of $1,000 per person, or $2,800 in order to take a photo with Biden.
To demonstrate his friendly relationship with the former vice president, Hale provided a time-stamped photo of himself shaking hands with Biden at the Nashville fundraiser and said the picture is proof that his presence at the fundraiser was not a surprise.
A campaign spokesperson for Biden did not respond to a request for comment, and the vice president’s campaign disclosures for the period in which the fundraiser took place show no contributions from Hale.
“As I recall, I contacted friends in the Biden campaign in Philadelphia to see if I could come to the event. I had been a vocal supporter of the vice president for years,” Hale said. “I had developed a relationship with his senior and mid-level staff through previous work experiences, previous engagements with the vice president’s office, and helped staff and host previous political fundraisers featuring the vice president in Washington, DC in 2012 and 2014.”
Hale acknowledged writing a $2,500 check to the TNDP last year, but said he was unaware of a problem with the contribution. He said the party never alerted him to an issue, and that since then the TNDP granted his congressional campaign access to its voter identification software.
The Tennessee Lookout asked Hale if his contribution was returned after the check bounced. Hale did not directly answer that question, responding instead that he had made multiple contributions to the TNDP, county Democratic parties and other Democratic candidates.
To clarify, Hale was asked why the $2,500 contribution was reported on July 3, 2019 and then returned eight days later.
Again, Hale did not directly answer the question: “The Tennessee Democratic Party never reached out to me following the contribution to indicate there was any issue with it. I’m confident if there was any problem or any debt owed, they would’ve contacted me to resolve it and wouldn’t have granted my campaign access to party-owned voter data, which we paid $1,500 to use in late April. The party has been nothing but supportive of the campaign since we won our contested primary. They’re consistently responsive and professional, and we’re thankful for that.”
Asked to respond to Hale’s comments, TNDP executive director Kris Murphy said the TNDP fully supports all of its Democratic campaigns.
“There seems to be some confusion though, because Chris Hale as an individual is a separate entity from the campaign and any contributions or promises made to the TNDP as an individual would have no bearing on our relationship with the Chris Hale for Congress campaign,” Murphy said.
The bounced checks are not the only questions swirling around Hale’s burgeoning political career. Hale traipsed into Tennessee politics seemingly out of nowhere. According to Hale’s resume, he served a six-month internship in the White House during the Obama administration as well as an unpaid internship in 2010 for then-U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Hale said he also had volunteer and paid positions on Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.
In 2018, he unsuccessfully ran for chairman of the state Democratic Party. (A note for readers: Tennessee Lookout Editor Holly McCall also sought the TNDP chair’s job in January 2019. To avoid any appearance of a conflict, McCall played no role in the writing or editing of this report). Earlier that year, Hale lost the District 4 primary to Mariah Phillips, who went on to lose to DesJarlais in November.
After losing the chair’s race to current chairwoman Mary Mancini, Hale began meeting with prominent Democrats and making the rounds to county Democratic Party gatherings. Insiders interpreted those appearances as indicators that Hale is ambitious beyond the current congressional race, and perhaps could run for state party chair again.
In meetings last year with state lawmakers and others, Hale made spectacular promises, multiple sources said, about launching a political action committee and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to bankroll campaigns for Tennessee Democrats.
According to campaign records, Hale created the Our Tennessee Political Action Committee last year. However, to date the PAC has reported raising $0 on each of its quarterly reports.
State Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, said Hale visited her legislative office and promised his PAC would raise between $150,000 and $200,000. Johnson said she, and other Democrats, were eagerly checking financial disclosures earlier this year to learn how much the PAC raised.
“He told me, and he told a lot of people, he was going to raise all this money and he never did,” Johnson said.
Carol Brown Andrews, a former member of the Tennessee Democratic Party Executive Committee, said she also heard proud boasts from Hale when he was seeking the party chairman job.
“While he was running, he had this big platform that he was going to raise $7 million a year for the party,” Andrews said. “I said, ‘How are you going to do that when people who have been into the Democratic Party in Tennessee for years haven’t been able to do that even on good years?’ He said he had all these connections and national money.
“So, he had these grandiose plans, so I don’t know if he didn’t know better or was just dreaming big or what. Then, shortly thereafter he came up with this Our Tennessee PAC and he was going around everywhere telling people he was going to raise money for Democratic candidates on all levels.”
He told me, and he told a lot of people, he was going to raise all this money and he never did. – Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, on a PAC created by Hale.
Hale said he promised “a number of wealthy individuals both in and out of state” that he wouldn’t actually raise money for the PAC project if he decided to run for office in 2020. He said “many donors and operatives” told him his plan was too ambitious, but that he secured initial pledges and deep interest from potential contributors. Hale said he does not have a job right now as he focuses on his congressional campaign.
“But I promised (operatives and donors) that I wouldn’t pull the trigger on the project if I decided to run for office in the 2020 cycle or get heavily involved in the 2020 presidential election,” Hale said. “The draw towards both options was too strong for me to give myself fully to such an expansive cause. So while we didn’t raise any money, I decided to keep the political action committee open, and I’ve had conversations about ways of moving the project forward with leadership and staff and funding in 2021. The idea is just as valid today as it was when it was conceived in 2019.
“A lot of the same fundraising networks are helping fuel my 2020 campaign, where we outraised Scott DesJarlais by a five-to-one margin during the second quarter.”
Although Hale outraised Desjarlais in the second quarter, the incumbent has a substantial fundraising advantage overall. Desjarlais has $505,808 on hand compared to $49,547 to Hale, according to OpenSecrets.org. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates Desjarlais’s seat as “solid Republican,” meaning Hale is unlikely to win the mostly rural district.
Separate from the campaign finance questions, Hale has also been accused of fraud in a lengthy letter provided earlier this year to Washington D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine’s office. Hale has not been charged with any crime related to that complaint.
The documents, provided to the attorney general by Washington D.C. attorney James Joseph with the law firm Arnold & Porter, claim that Hale used an email list from a defunct nonprofit organization he had previously worked for in order to solicit funds from former donors. According to the documents, the fundraising requests made it seem like the money was for a new nonprofit called the Francis Project, with a mission to politically engage progressive Catholics, when instead the funds went to a for-profit company registered in Hale’s name.
Hale’s emails used Catholic imagery, including pictures of Pope Francis, and asked for funds to help support activist causes and messaging to push back against the agenda of President Donald Trump.
Joseph’s letter to the attorney general details how Hale was told not to use the email list, and how he continued to do so. The letter also contained the business registration documents, showing Hale created the Francis Project as a for-profit company and not a nonprofit.
Hale said he had a dispute with former members of the nonprofit about whether he could use the email list. Hale said he started a “small project” intended to “train young Catholics to be in our words, ‘world-class’ political activists.”
Hale said that venture was political, not charitable. Hale added that after receiving a cease-and-desist from an individual representing the defunct nonprofit, he responded that the former organization had no legal claim to the email list, and then never heard back.
It’s unclear how much money Hale raised through the emails.
“We periodically fundraised in 2019 to gear up for the 2020 election,” Hale told the Tennessee Lookout. “As part of my discernment for what to do in 2020, in the summer of 2019, I investigated options for increasing the operations of the group into a full fledged 501(c)4 or PAC, and on advice, I registered The Francis Project as a legal entity under my name in the District of Columbia so that I could obtain traditional brick-and- mortar banking for the group and begin the process of transitioning into an IRS recognized political advocacy group.
“But there wasn’t enough money or interest to grow the operations.”
Andrews said the concern among some Democrats is that Hale has inflated his profile and positioned himself to be a key figure in Rutherford County and Tennessee Democratic politics without a public vetting.
“He was calling me when he was running for office (in 2018), and telling me all of these things and I thought, ‘I’ve never heard of this person in Tennessee politics.’ He was from out of left field,” Andrews said.