The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance hit Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron with a $135,000 civil penalty Wednesday as he took responsibility for nearly $300,000 in questionable campaign contributions and expenditures targeted in three state audits.
Board members voted 4-0 to levy a new penalty on the former state senator for violations connected to his Senate, Quest PAC and mayoral accounts but dismissed $80,000 in previous penalties for numerous late filings. He also will be able to start a payment plan and will be eligible to run for re-election in 2022.
Under state law, the Registry has required other members to pay all of their penalties in the past to become eligible to qualify for election. But Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance Executive Director Bill Young said he would consider a payment plan as “payment.” The board’s attorney said as long as Ketron is in “good standing” he would be able to run for re-election.
Ketron accepted the blame but laid the problems on his willingness to trust his daughter, Kelsey, to run his insurance business and handle his political accounts. The former state senator also pointed out he was diagnosed with lymphoma cancer and fought that as he returned to the Senate in 2016, as well as the death of his mother.
Most of the violations, though, occurred after his cancer diagnosis as his health improved after a stem cell transplant.
“I’m extremely embarrassed. I’ve done everything within my power to resolve this situation,” Ketron said. He noted, however, he did not use the funds for non-campaign purposes but said mistakes were made.
Ketron explained he was so focused on serving constituents and then running for Rutherford County mayor that he didn’t listen to his wife, who told him he should replace his daughter as campaign treasurer.
“She assured me she was taking care of it,” he said.
Ketron’s daughter also lost her state insurance license and took a plea deal for insurance fraud.
Mayor Ketron said his problems stemmed from bookkeeping errors, transactions being posed on the wrong reports and at least one deposit being entirely overlooked. Starting from an “incorrect” point also skewed the audit, he told board members.
Ketron threw himself on the mercy of the board, explaining he had to sell his insurance business and watch his daughter serve jail time.
Board members were sympathetic, but at least one pointed out he and Ketron had a conversation in either 2016 or 2017, with his daughter present, when the mayor told them they wouldn’t see him again for a violation.
Including more than $290,000 spent for:
- Ketron’s personal vehicle
- The MTSU Foundation
- MTSU athletic events
- Special Kids (nonpfrofit)
Board members noted if they levied a $10,000 penalty for Ketron’s 400-plus violations, he would have to pay more than $4 million. Ketron’s attorneys said they resolved about 90% of those violations, leaving about 33. Registry member Tom Morton of East Tennessee suggested a $235,000 penalty.
But board member Hank Fincher said he felt that was too stringent. He supported a $75,000 levy.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to get to a number that meets the severity of the offense” and the circumstances surrounding Ketron, board member Paz Haynes.
Ketron’s attorney, Trey Harwell, pointed out to the board that Ketron had to sell his insurance business following his daughter’s court case and that he would have trouble paying a significant amount. Nevertheless, he said his client would accept the board’s decision.
Audits flagged more than $290,000 of Ketron’s expenditures on numerous items such as his vehicle, the MTSU Foundation, MTSU athletic event tickets and even Special Kids, a nonprofit agency in Murfreesboro that works with fragile children.
Fincher asked Ketron about $14,000 in “anonymous contributions.” His attorneys responded that it came from his personal Capital One credit card, causing Fincher to ask whether the board should give the mayor more time to answer audit findings.
His attorneys, who have been working with Registry auditors for two years, said they identified $60,000 in credit card expenses but said he has tens of thousands of expenditures on credit cards, which they are unlikely to reconcile because they can’t find records.
Ketron was also unable to account for thousands of dollars in donations in fish-bowl donations raised at the campaign events. And one $43,000 expense will probably never be accounted for, according to discussion.
“That would be an open item that’s never gonna be closed,” said Registry Chairman David Golden.
Board member Tom Lawless, a friend of Ketron’s, recused himself from the meeting, and Paige Dennis was absent from the latter part of the conference call meeting.
Registry to audit Rep. Warner
The Registry voted unanimously to audit an expense by Rep. Todd Warner, R-Chapel Hill, with a new vendor, Dixieland Strategies to determine whether it was legitimate and potentially whether illegal coordination was made between the campaign and a political action committee, Faith Family Freedom Forum.
Registry members made the move after board member Hank Fincher queried Peter Strianse, attorney for Warner, about whether he knew anything about Dixieland Strategies. Strianse did not answer the question, instead saying he found it difficult to believe the board was considering the matter again after it closed the case last year.
Greg Hazelwood, a Nashville resident who did volunteer work for former Rep. Rick Tillis during his 2020 Republican primary campaign against Warner, contended Dixieland Strategies had no “business footprint” because he couldn’t find a physical location, phone number or other information showing it existed.
Hazelwood filed a complaint last summer contending Warner and Faith Family Freedom Fund potentially violated campaign finance laws after they sent out political flyers with the same postal code on the same day.
The Registry board dismissed the case last year, mainly because Hazelwood didn’t show up for the hearing. Board members grilled him for missing that meeting, and others raised questions about whether his complaint fell into their jurisdiction. He explained he didn’t know he needed to show up to argue his case.
It appeared the board would dismiss the matter again until Fincher, a Democrat serving on the board, asked Strianse, “Who is Dixieland Strategies?”
Strianse responded that such a question is “beyond the scope” of the complaint. Fincher asked whether he was refusing to answer the question.
The Nashville defense attorney answered that a check was written to Dixieland Strategies by Warner’s campaign, received and reported, which should be the extent of the probe.
Fincher asked whether the board should “just take it on faith” that Dixieland Strategies put together the flyers.
Questions also had been raised about another mysterious new vendor, New Mexico-based Phoenix Solutions, and whether it was involved. Phoenix Solutions is believed to be under investigation by the FBI, which raided the homes and offices of Warner, as well as Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, former House Speaker Glen Casada of Franklin, and Casada’s former chief of staff, Cade Cothren. Three other legislative staff members remain on paid leave as part of the investigation.
Fincher pointed out the board is “trying to figure out if it’s a legitimate campaign expense.” Strianse responded that he was “surprised the board wants to dignify this sworn complaint.”
Warner’s attorney argued that Hazelwood simply didn’t like the flyer and said Warner was not funneling money out of his campaign account for personal use.
Fincher called for Strianse’s response to be struck from the record because he failed to answer the question and asked for a show-cause hearing. Ultimately, the board voted to audit the issues raised in Hazelwood’s complaint that fall within its jurisdiction.