Stockard on the Stump: What’s in your wallet? 

By: - April 16, 2021 2:36 pm
Tennessee State Capitol. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)

Tennessee State Capitol. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)

When the Registry of Election Finance asked Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron: “What’s in your wallet?” It wasn’t his Capital One credit card. Apparently, his daughter, Kelsey Ketron Randolph, had that.

And how she was spending it, nobody knows. Or, at least, nobody will tell.

A state audit of Ketron’s three campaign accounts found 474 violations, about 80% of which have been resolved after two years of work. But apparently there were about $14,000 worth of unreported in-kind contributions from “anonymous” sources in Ketron’s mayoral campaign account, and those still haven’t been reconciled, along with tens of thousands more expenses.

Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron (Photo: Rutherfordcountytn.gov)
Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron (Photo: Rutherfordcountytn.gov)

When a Registry member questioned that finding in a Wednesday hearing, Ketron’s attorneys said those were related to his Capital One card, which his daughter controlled. The Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance wasn’t ready to accept that explanation, according to Executive Director Bill Young.

And there are still more than 30 findings that haven’t been resolved and probably never will be.

It’s a pretty damning situation for the former Republican state senator from Murfreesboro, who was chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus and, as such, was in charge of helping GOP candidates raise money and run campaigns.

Thus, the $135,000 civil penalty the Registry of Election Finance laid on Ketron during this week’s hearing where the mayor took responsibility but laid the problems at the feet of his daughter, who he admits couldn’t handle the job.

Critics of Ketron are far from happy, saying he got off light. That’s because the Registry board forgave $80,000 in penalties for late filings on his Senate and Quest PAC accounts and voted to let him make payments and remain eligible to qualify for re-election in 2022, instead of paying off the entire penalty before the qualifying deadline – as required by state law.

Rutherford County Commissioner Robert Stevens, who has consistently questioned Ketron’s campaign finance shortcomings, believes the registry’s decision could be challenged in court.

“I think what they’ve done is not lawful,” Stevens said. He adds, “I think it’s pretty clear they overstepped their bounds.”

Bureau Director Young, though, said he and general counsel Lauren Topping looked at the statute and determined that as long as Ketron enters a binding agreement, he can be allowed to qualify to run in 2022. The Secretary of State’s Office didn’t respond to questions.

Young compared it to taking out a mortgage on a house. Even though the bank holds a lien on a house, it is titled in the name of the buyer.

 Ketron’s situation is pretty damning. The former Republican state senator from Murfreesboro was chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus and, as such, was in charge of helping GOP candidates raise money and run campaigns.

“So if he enters into an agreement paying in full over time the civil penalty, I think we can write the agreement in such a way that he would be able to qualify for election,” Young said.

State law is clear, however, stating: “If a civil penalty lawfully assessed and any lawfully assessed cost attendant to the penalty are not paid within 30 days after the assessment becomes final, or by the qualifying deadline for election, whichever is earlier, the candidate owing such civil penalty shall be ineligible to qualify for election to any state or local public office until such penalty and costs are paid.”

Registry general counsel Lauren Topping sent the Tennessee Lookout a response to questions noting Registry members wanted to allow Rutherford County voters to choose whether to re-elect Ketron, “given the facts of this case and have therefore elected to enter into an agreed order with Mayor Ketron whereby the penalty assessment will not become final, unless Mayor Ketron fails to make meaningful progress toward and eventually comply with the stipulations set out by the board, until the penalties are paid in full.”

The board outlined stipulations at the meeting, including the closing out of his Senate and Quest PAC accounts. Young is to negotiate a payment plan with Ketron’s attorney, Trey Harwell of Nashville.

The decision raises a question of fairness as well, along with whether the board can simply drop $80,000 in penalties already turned over for collection to the Attorney General’s Office.

In recent history, at least, this is the first time someone’s been given the chance to make payments. Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, who thumbed his nose at the Registry for years, was required to pay $22,000 to qualify last year when he negotiated a last-second deal that led to a vote that ran afoul of the Open Meetings Act.

Young told the Lookout he isn’t certain what time frame the Registry board is expecting for Ketron to pay the penalty.

Board member Tom Morton wanted Ketron to pay a higher amount in 90 days. Board member Hank Fincher wanted to give him more time because of all the contributing factors to Ketron’s demise, mainly blind loyalty to his daughter’s shortcomings. Kelsey also pleaded guilty last year to insurance fraud, and Ketron had to sell the insurance business his parents started decades ago.

Harwell noted his client has only his income as county mayor, about $165,000. Board members appeared to take into account Ketron’s problems with his daughter’s criminal defense and fines, as well as a battle with cancer six years ago.

But Young said Ketron won’t be able to get by with making payments of $1,000 a month or so, stretching the payment plan out for decades.

“I’m thinking it will be paid off relatively quickly,” Young said.

He is supposed to bring a proposal back to the Registry board in July.

Meanwhile, Ketron, who finally replaced his daughter as his campaign treasurer after years of bad judgment, will have to decide whether he has too much political baggage to run for re-election. 

I can see the mud-slinging campaign flyers now: “Mayor Ketron, what’s in your wallet?” “Not a Capital One card. It’s maxed out.”

No more Black history

“Any time you want to kill a bill, all you have to say is the word ‘Black.’” – Sen. Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis, after her legislation to increase Black History in grades 5 and 8 was sent back to committee Thursday, likely killing it for the year.

Show the footage

Rep. Sam McKenzie, D-Knoxville, called for the release of police body-camera footage after an Austin-East Magnet High School student was killed this week in a shootout with police. The officer who sustained a gunshot in the incident was not hit by a bullet from the slain student’s weapon, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. logo for Austin East high school

Despite requests from the chief of police, mayor and city council, the Knox County district attorney general is refusing to release the video because the investigation is ongoing. 

Said McKenzie: “In the wake of what you saw happen in Minnesota and how quickly those got out … it seems to be a different type of posture. I won’t call it adversarial, but closed, and that’s just not where we are today. Unfortunate, in the 1970s and 1980s, maybe that could have happened. But technology has improved, and we really need to see that film. If it exonerates the policeman, thank goodness. If it shows some culpability, we’ll deal with it, either way. But to withhold those is not the right answer.”

Don’t make sales tax holiday plans just yet

Gov. Lee this week proposed a $100 million sales tax holiday for groceries and restaurants for fiscal 2021-22 when people will be able to get their grub on without paying state and local taxes.

The idea is to encourage people to go out to eat, save some money and bolster the restaurant industry, which took a serious hit in the 2020 pandemic. 

House Republicans and Democrats support the move, with Democrats saying some of their proposals might have been hijacked. They would like to see the tax lifted for even longer.

But Senate Republican leaders are a bit leery of these types of tax holidays, and as they start budget negotiations with the House, they’re likely to take the same view as they did in 2020 when they removed a sales tax holiday from the budget.

Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, says restaurants don’t need tax breaks: they already have long lines of Tennesseans streaming in. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, questioned giving the lion’s share of the breaks to restaurants. He pointed out this week restaurants already have long waiting lines while many people don’t eat out. 

As a policy, the Senate doesn’t even like tax holidays.

Said Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson: “It has not been a priority in the past. We have looked at ways to utilize those resources in ways we think are productive for the citizens of Tennessee.”

Unemployment ain’t easy

For those who’ve never been on unemployment, it isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. That $275 a week isn’t exactly putting anyone up in Trump Tower.

Editorial statements aside, legislation to reduce the time frame for receiving unemployment benefits is going through some changes. A move to tie that time frame to the state’s unemployment rate, dropping it to 12 weeks from 26 if the jobless is at or below 5.5%, has been put behind the budget in the House, meaning it won’t be considered until the governor’s budget is almost out of the way.

A move to add $5 a week to unemployment benefits isn’t even enough to buy a six-pack of Kroger Cost-Cutter beer.

Meanwhile, the Senate version of the bill, SB1402, has been taken over by Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol. He grabbed it over from Sen. Art Swann, a Maryville Republican, who previously told the Lookout he didn’t think 12 weeks was long enough.

Meanwhile, a move could be afoot to soften the blow by adding $25 a week to benefits rather than $5, which can’t buy a six-pack of Kroger Cost-Cutter beer anymore. (Do they still make that?)

Republicans are backing the plan, saying Tennesseans need to get back to work as the pandemic ends. Democrats say we’re still in a pandemic.

Either way, unemployment is up slightly to 5% this month, and about 172,000 people have filed for unemployment since the start of the year. An analysis by the Department of Labor and Workforce Development also shows the state has 84,300 fewer jobs than it did a year ago.

McNally gets up on a hickory stump

A week after Bible-as-the-official-state-book-resolution sponsor Rep. Jerry Sexton challenged Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s opinion of his legislation, McNally forgave him.

McNally has said repeatedly he doesn’t believe the Bible should be put on par with the salamander and ladybug, both of which hold official positions in the Tennessee Blue Book, which isn’t really blue, but a sort of puke yellow.

Last week, Sexton reacted to McNally’s philosophy by saying “it brings him down on that level as an affront to an assault on the very existence of God. So that argument doesn’t hold up.”

Asked Thursday about Sexton’s statement in his weekly press briefing, McNally first wanted to make sure it wasn’t House Speaker Cameron Sexton who said it. Assured it wasn’t, McNally said it is “fine” for Rep. Sexton to differ. 

McNally has said repeatedly he doesn’t believe the Bible should be put on par with the salamander and ladybug, both of which hold official positions in the Tennessee Blue Book, which isn’t really blue, but a sort of puke yellow.

McNally, who took Sexton’s resolution as primary sponsor in the Senate and could sit on it for the session, reiterated his belief that the Bible is a “very holy book” and shouldn’t be relegated to a place where the state honors limestone, salamanders and butterflies.

He even gave Sexton the benefit of the doubt and said he doesn’t feel the representative questioned his spirituality.

“I have a strong belief in Christ and the trinity. And it goes back a long way,” McNally. The Oak Ridge Republican added he believes “we’re all sinners” but through God can find redemption. “I certainly haven’t led the perfect life and am trying to do better.”

Amen, Brother McNally. 

After that short but profound sermon, I can skip church this Sunday.

 

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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