Registry director now questions whether state law allowed Ketron payment plan

Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron speaks to residents in a March address on COVID-19. (Photo: rutherfordcountytn.gov)
Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron. (Photo: rutherfordcountytn.gov)

A month after the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance authorized its executive director to negotiate a payment plan with Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron on a $135,000 civil penalty, the director is raising doubts about whether such a move would have been legal.

“I think that’s a very close question at the end of the day,” Bill Young, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, said this week.  

Bill Young, executive director, Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance (Photo: tn.gov)
Bill Young, executive director, Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance (Photo: tn.gov)

The question could be moot, at least for now, after Ketron’s attorney, Trey Harwell, told Young last week the mayor is withdrawing his request to set up a payment plan and will pay the entire $135,000 in a lump sum. Such a move would eliminate potential challenges to whether Ketron would be eligible to qualify for re-election in spring of 2022.

The Registry board voted in April to levy a $135,000 civil penalty against the former state senator and current mayor for 474 findings affecting about $300,000 in his Senate, Quest PAC and mayoral campaign accounts. The board also dropped $80,000 in previously ordered civil penalties for late filings and other violations and directed Young to negotiate a payment plan with Ketron after his attorney told the board the mayor faced financial difficulties.

Young said this week he still needs approval from the board to accept Ketron’s proposal. It will be placed on the July agenda for consideration so the Registry can send out an order for the civil penalty.

Harwell told board members Ketron had to sell his insurance business after his daughter Kelsey Ketron Randolph pleaded guilty to insurance fraud. He also paid tens of thousands in fines associated with that case, the attorney said, as he asked for leniency from the board.

As to whether such a payment plan would have satisfied state law, Young said he probably should have taken the Registry board’s question under advisement when it asked if Ketron could make payments and still qualify to run for re-election next spring.

Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron’s offer to pay fines for campaign finance violations may not be legal, but it may be a moot point as Ketron is offering to pay the $135,000 fines in one lump sum.

“I know at the time I said it probably would meet the requirements of the statute, and I’m not totally convinced that it wouldn’t. But I also (think) that statute is not as clear on that issue as it could be, so I think that would be a difficult issue, and I’m glad we don’t have to address it in this case, because I think it’s just a tough issue,” Young said.

The Registry did not receive any formal complaints challenging its civil penalty or the decision to drop the $80,000 penalty or to negotiate a payment plan, according to Young.

Murfreesboro attorney Brad Hornsby sent the Registry a letter asking it to reopen the investigation into Ketron’s finances. The Registry turned him down but said he could file a formal challenge.

Rutherford County Commissioner Robert Stevens, a Smyrna attorney who has been critical of the mayor and the Registry’s decisions, sent an email to Young asking at least a dozen questions. He said none of his questions were answered.

Stevens said Wednesday the further Ketron’s case progresses the more questions it raises.

“I have no idea what’s going on up there. All I know is that there are a lot of questions about what statutes and what rules the Registry followed in reaching their decision. I still want answers as to what authorized them to do what they did,” Stevens said.

Based on the request by Ketron’s attorney at the April meeting for a payment plan, Stevens said he was under the impression the mayor “was not flush with cash.” He doesn’t know how Ketron would have enough money to pay a $135,000 penalty.

Ketron did not return a call to his cell phone Wednesday. His attorney has not returned calls from the Tennessee Lookout.

Stevens’ main question focused on what statute or rule allowed the Registry board to levy the civil penalty and not require Ketron to pay it immediately but to negotiate a payment plan, which was to have been done before the July meeting.

He also wants to know what state law or rule the Registry board used to determine it could dismiss $80,000 in civil penalties against Ketron. 

Tennessee state law on fines:

“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.”

“Their own rules say that once an order is final and issued for 30 days and no one files an appeal, it’s a final order,” Stevens said. He questioned whether it would “open a floodgate” of requests by other candidates to waive penalties.

According to Young, the board deferred the question on Ketron’s payment until July. 

” They really did not address it at our last meeting. They wanted us to think about it more, they wanted more details about what that would mean. And so I’m not sure the board would have ultimately approved it at their next meeting,” he said.

But in April he defended his legal opinion that the mayor could set up payments, comparing it to making payments on a house, saying the Registry counsel would write an agreement that would allow him to qualify for election as long as he pays the civil penalty in full over a certain time frame. At that point, no details of a proposed payment plan were available.

State law, however, says, “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.”

In addition, the Registry’s attorney appears to have confirmed the board approved a decision to let Ketron make payments.

Lauren Topping, general counsel for the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, sent the Tennessee Lookout an email in April stating that the Registry members “expressed their desire to allow the voters of Rutherford County to choose whether or not to re-elect Mayor Ketron given the facts of this case and have therefore elected to enter 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.” 

Stipulations for the arrangement were outlined at the April meeting but terms of the payment plan were to be subject to board approval in July, according to Topping.