Stockard on the Stump: Registry won’t renew investigation into Ketron

Tennessee State Capitol (Getty Images)
Tennessee State Capitol (Getty Images)

The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance isn’t going to reopen an investigation of Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron’s campaign finance problems but it will accept new information about the former state senator’s campaign and PAC accounts.

In a letter to Murfreesboro attorney Brad Hornsby, Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance attorney Lauren Topping wrote that she and Executive Director Bill Young believe third parties to cases already heard by the Registry don’t have standing to request reconsideration of action. In addition, Topping said the Registry doesn’t have authority to reopen an investigation into matters “fully investigated” and acted on by the Registry without a sworn complaint alleging evidence of wrongdoing.

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

In April, the Registry levied a $135,000 civil penalty against Ketron for 474 findings affecting some $300,000 from separate audits of his Senate, Quest PAC and mayoral campaign accounts.

Hornsby, in a letter to the Registry, demanded it reopen the case and ask Ketron to explain $5,000 in illegal contributions and $90,000 in undocumented contributions or prevent him from seeking re-election. Hornsby could not be reached for comment this week.

Registry auditors reviewed Ketron’s reports for two years, working with his attorneys, but couldn’t reconcile tens of thousands of dollars in contributions and spending. Young said they will likely never figure out what happened to some of the money and recommended closing out the Senate and PAC accounts.

As part of its decision, the Registry board dropped $80,000 in civil penalties against Ketron for late filings. It also allowed him to negotiate a payment plan for the $135,000 and still remain eligible to qualify for re-election in 2022. State law usually requires that all penalties be paid before a candidate can qualify to run.

“The Registry’s staff takes the position that the audit reports produced in these matters speak for themselves and that the lengthy discussion of the merits of this case which occurred at the Registry’s April 14, 2021 meeting have fully addressed the issues you have raised,” Topping’s letter states.

Still, the Registry will put Hornsby’s letter on the agenda for its July 23 meeting when it is to discuss Ketron’s case. Young is scheduled to present a proposal to the board for Ketron to start making payments.

Topping’s letter notes if Hornsby has more information that hasn’t been fully considered by the Registry, he could submit it with a sworn complaint about Ketron’s Senate and Quest PAC accounts with the Registry office. Any complaint about the Ketron’s mayoral campaign would need to be filed with the District Attorney General’s Office in Rutherford County.

“We would also advise that no final decision has been made by the Registry Board regarding Mayor Ketron’s request to pay the civil penalties assessed against Mayor Ketron, and the Quest political campaign committee and its treasurer, under a payment plan. Mayor Ketron’s request was deferred by the Registry Board for consideration at the Board’s July 23, 2021 meeting,” the letter states.

Hornsby also referenced problems with Ketron’s daughter, Kelsey Ketron Randolph, and a plea deal she made on insurance fraud charges. But Topping said the Registry could not address matters outside campaign violations.

Ketron took responsibility for the discrepancies but laid most of the problems at the feet of his daughter and his unwillingness to fire her as his treasurer.

Trotting out Tebow

Republicans and Democrats alike questioned Gov. Bill Lee’s plan to spend millions with out-of-state organizations in his supplemental budget, including $1.2 million with Her Song, a ministry of the Tim Tebow Foundation out of Florida.

The governor managed to keep the proposal in the state’s $42.6 billion budget, and this week he ran a victory lap of sorts with Tebow in tow at the State Capitol, where they discussed their efforts to attack human trafficking through a new partnership.

The state will also spend $3.5 million with End Slavery Tennessee, $600,000 with the Tennessee Anti-Slavery Alliance and $100,000 with Thistle Farms, mainly to provide shelter for women and children victimized by human trafficking.

Lee defended his decision to step outside Tennessee and contract with Her Song, calling the partnership an “awesome display” including local organizations working with national groups with “unique expertise.”

“What matters most to me are the women and the children and bringing together the right people who have the right experience and the right ability to convene,” Lee said Thursday. “We did scour (the state), we did our best to put together what we believe is the right team.”

The governor noted churches and other nonprofits across Tennessee will be participating in the effort too. “The answer is found in people,” he added.

Tebow, who has made the battle with human trafficking his life’s mission, described how his father, while preaching in another country, rescued four girls before they could be sold to people who would hurt them.

“He wasn’t prepared for everything that was next, but he couldn’t not do something about it because this demands a response by him, by me, by you, by everything that they’re doing. It demands a response,” Tebow said in a Thursday press conference at the State Capitol.

Tebow, a former quarterback, kept the spotlight on human trafficking and declined to discuss his NFL comeback as the Jacksonville Jaguars plan to sign him to a one-year contract to play tight end after six years out of the league. The 33-year-old Heisman Trophy winner played five years in the New York Mets minor league system but did not reach the big leagues.

Rep. Bo Mitchell, the most vocal critic of the governor’s out-of-state spending during the budget debate, blasted the move, calling it more of a “photo op” for Lee than anything else. He pointed out the governor is spending another $3 million with the Human Coalition out of Texas, a conservative anti-abortion group.

“I am sure that there a lot of qualified not-for-profits in Tennessee doing the exact same thing that these folks are doing that will hire Tennesseans,” Mitchell said. 

The Davidson County Democrat pointed out the governor decided to cut the federal unemployment supplement for Tennesseans, $300 a week, “and now he’s going to use our tax dollars that could be used to pay Tennesseans to Texas and Florida? I don’t know what sense that makes.”

Get back to work

Shockingly, Republicans and Democrats are caught in a philosophical fight over Lee’s decision to end federal unemployment benefits related to the COVID-19 pandemic, as of July 3 cutting off extra money to 112,000 on unemployment and 61,000 who’ve applied.

Republicans argue people are declining to go back to work because they’re getting $275 a week from the state and $300 a week from the feds, an astounding $575, which is more than they can make on the job. That equates to $29,900 a year, which isn’t bad if you’re in your 20s but is hardly enough to raise a family.

Business groups are supporting the move, too, even though under current law, individuals can only get jobless benefits for 26 weeks.

Democrats call it a heartless decision, with people still reeling from the pandemic and job cuts.

Throwing another jab at the governor, Senate Democrat staff took a look at the governor’s argument that the state has 250,000 jobs listed on Jobs4TN.gov and found some are six months old while only 54,000 new jobs have been posted in the last two weeks. That is contrasted with 166,700 people out of work statewide, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor.

In light of those numbers, one onlooker (not me) who isn’t a legislator and has no dog in the fight raised this question: Will Lee let these people come sleep in his barn? Maybe they could help feed the cattle.

Meanwhile, Republican U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn is working to repeal the federal unemployment benefits because President Joe Biden and Washington “liberals are paying people more money to stay home.” Well, maybe it is more than employers are willing to pay, and what does that say?

Connecting to Casada

The Tennessee Journal and Chattanooga Times Free Press reported this week the FBI talked to lawmakers throughout this latest session, including Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville. Zachary spent $4,408 with the Phoenix Solutions, a new vendor that could be the focal point of the federal probe.

Zachary reportedly said the FBI’s questions focused on former House Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin, and Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson. Zachary told the Times Frees Press he did a survey with Casada’s political consulting firm and it “went through the Phoenix Solutions,” connecting Casada to the vendor for the first time.

Many people think Phoenix Solutions was run by Cade Cothren, Casada’s former chief of staff, who resigned in 2019 amid a racist texting scandal that helped lead to Casada’s demise.

It’s unclear exactly what the FBI is going for in this probe. But anyone who’s paid attention to FBI investigations understands they usually don’t let go until they put someone in handcuffs. They raided the Cordell Hull Building five months ago, and it’s clear they’re not done. Some people probably should start sweating.

What is left for the former Speaker?

Casada’s primary contribution to the Legislature this year was the earth-shattering bill designed to cut the legs out from under Nashville’s community oversight board.

Amid a spate of shootings of Black people who may or may not have done anything wrong, maybe he didn’t want the board to call for the heads of white officers who pull the trigger.

Initially, Casada’s bill would have prohibited the oversight board from taking any action unless all of its members had gone through the Metro Nashville Police training academy.

Ultimately, the bill was so watered down it was rendered worthless. The legislation sent to the governor’s desk requires only that each community oversight board member complete the academy training within a year and that those who fail to comply serve as non-voting members.

Considering Casada’s Williamson County district doesn’t have an oversight board, one would have to ask: Why? Then again, when he was at the height of his power, he spent a good deal of time beating Nashville over the head. And now that he’s at the low point of power, he just can’t get it out of his system. It’s a long way from the top.

Potts no longer cooking with gas

Rep. Jason Potts, an Antioch Democrat who won election to replace Sherry Jones three years ago, isn’t planning to run for re-election in 2022, according to reports.

Potts told The Tennessean he faced discrimination in the Republican-controlled House and couldn’t pass legislation. He also reportedly wants to spend more time on his job and with his family.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton responded to Potts’ contention by calling it “nonsense” and saying he could have been more effective by showing up. Apparently, he missed about 21 meetings this session. 

More than 20 House Democrats passed bills this year. So Democrats can muster legislation through the House, as long as they play their cards correctly.

Special session still possible?

The Tennessee Lookout reported this week lawmakers haven’t closed the door on seeking a special session this summer to deal with billions of dollars in federal funding.

Although an extraordinary get-together is unlikely, the sheer amount of funds flowing in could cause legislators to say they want to get a little more control and move that money around.

Some, however, are a little nauseous at the notion. With the 2021 session only a week in the rear-view mirror, one lawmaker said the thought of coming back for a special session makes him want to puke. Now that’s an indictment.