Registry of Election Finance to audit Humble for potential illegal coordination with PAC-like group

By: - September 7, 2022 2:30 pm
Casting votes, Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)

Casting votes, Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)

The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance is set to audit former Senate District 27 candidate Gary Humble to determine whether his campaign illegally coordinated with his nonprofit organization Tennessee Stands.

Registry board member Tom Lawless, a Nashville attorney, called for the investigation Wednesday based on his general knowledge of the situation.

“There’s some smoke there, which usually means there’s something underneath that causes it to rise. And I just want you all to dig into it,” Lawless said.

Humble, a Williamson County resident and political activist, narrowly lost to Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson of Franklin in the Aug. 4

Gary Humble (Photo: submitted)
Gary Humble (Photo: submitted)primary. The final tally was 51.6% to 48.4%, even though Johnson spent heavily and had support from top Republican leaders in Williamson County and Tennessee.

Lawless also raised questions about Humble’s group, Tennessee Stands, which has a 501(c)(4) federal tax status, and whether it is operating as a political action committee without registering with the state. Humble is executive director of the organization, which is intertwined with his political activity. 

“If it doesn’t meet the pure definition of a PAC, if it is supporting or assisting through in-kind contributions or other contributions to the candidate, that’s a problem,” Lawless said.

There’s some smoke there, which usually means there’s something underneath that causes it to rise. And I just want you all to dig into it.

– Tom Lawless, Nashville attorney and member of the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance

The Registry member said he believes the PAC-type group held events simultaneously with Humble’s campaign before the election, a situation the Legislature was trying to clean up when it passed an ethics reform bill this year.

But regardless of whether it is found to be a political action committee, because it operates with nonprofit status, Tennessee Stands would be required to register and file reports with the Registry of Election Finance under a new state law tracking activity of those organizations within two months of an election. Humbles also has another group with nonprofit status, which would be required to register if it engages in certain activity, according to the Registry.

Humble responded Wednesday by saying, “They can audit away.”

He said that Tennessee Stands spent only $500 on a Facebook ad, and that occurred before July 1.

Humble also asked rhetorically whether the Registry board plans to audit Johnson’s campaign to see if illegal coordination happened with campaign coordinator Ward Baker’s PAC and the Tennessee Conservatives PAC, which formed in May and sent negative mailers about Humble calling him a “grifter” and “Democrat in disguise.”

It had the same treasurer, Les Williamson, as PACs for Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty and a PAC attacking Humble in Williamson County, according to Humble.

The Tennessee Star also reported in July that Humble had no conflict of interest with Tennessee Stands on his mailer. He said a Freedom Matters podcast incorporated into the mailer is simply an invitation to see where he stands on issues, even though the podcast site shows it is presented by Tennessee Stands.

The Registry board declined to take up a complaint against Humble filed by Williamson County voter Pete Pancione for making an illegal campaign expenditure, instead sending it to Williamson County District Attorney Kim Helper for investigation. Pancione made the complaint after receiving a Humble election mailer that didn’t state who paid for the material, which is required by law.

Registry board member Hank Fincher noted Wednesday it is “campaign finance 101” to provide the financial source of election materials.

Humble told the Tennessee Star the “paid for” disclaimer was left off the mailer unintentionally and that he reported it to the DA’s Office.

Yet another complaint has been filed against Humble alleging he is acting as a lobbyist without filing with the state. Humble protested against legislation requiring groups with 501c status to file expenditure reports if their campaign spending hits $5,000 within 60 days of an election.

The legislation is designed to check the flow of so-called “dark money” into state campaigns. Humble and groups that opposed the legislation said it would only insert government more into the legislative process, putting a damper on their First Amendment rights.

“They call it a transparency bill. I call it the incumbent protection act,” Humble said.

The Registry board also has authority to subpoena records, including banking documents, but it wasn’t prepared to take that step Wednesday, though members discussed it.

Ward Baker declined to comment in response to Humble’s claims.

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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.