Campaign finance watchdog files complaint against Harwell

By: - November 15, 2022 2:00 pm
Former 5th District congressional candidate Beth Harwell, photographed at the U.S.-Mexico border wall built under former President Donald Trump. (Photo: Beth Harwell for U.S. Congress)

Former 5th District congressional candidate Beth Harwell, photographed at the U.S.-Mexico border wall built under former President Donald Trump. (Photo: Beth Harwell for U.S. Congress)

A federal campaign finance watchdog group filed a complaint Tuesday against former House Speaker Beth Harwell claiming she violated the law by moving $47,000 in “soft money” into her failed congressional campaign this year.

Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center filed the complaint alleging Harwell appears to have broken federal rules by directing $35,000 from the Beth Harwell Committee and $12,000 from the Harwell PAC, both state accounts, into a super PAC called Government of the People, which purchased advertising supporting her 5th Congressional District campaign in advance of the August primary. Harwell finished behind former Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles in the race.

Government of the People reported making $62,000 in independent expenditures supporting Harwell’s candidacy and more than $51,000 in independent expenditures opposing Ogles.

After looking into the matter, which was initially reported by the Tennessee Journal and Tennessee Lookout, Saurav Ghosh, director of federal campaign finance reform for the group, said he felt the transfer of the money was a violation of the federal “soft money” prohibition.

“Even though Ms. Harwell lost in her primary and a lot of folks would look at $47,000 as really not that much money in the scheme of things where campaign finance is today, I think it’s an important protection for our federal elections and it’s one that needs to be vindicated,” Ghosh said Tuesday. 

The group is urging the FEC to take action to “make clear” those running state committees cannot use that money for federal campaigns because it’s not raised within the rules of federal law, Ghosh said. 

The group’s complaint with the Federal Election Commission contends Harwell, the Beth Harwell Committee and the Harwell PAC violated the Federal Election Campaign Act by spending “soft money,” including non-federal funds that aren’t subject to federal source prohibitions, contribution limits and reporting requirements in connection with a federal election. The law is designed to stop the transfer of millions of dollars in state campaign funds to federal campaigns, though Harwell’s case involves less than $50,000.

“By using non-federal funds to support her bid for federal office, Harwell violated fundraising restrictions and transparency requirements that apply to all federal candidates, which are crucial to informing the public about the sources of candidates’ support, as well as for preventing corruption and its appearance,” the filing states.

Debra Maggart, a Capitol Hill lobbyist and former House Republican leader, is co-treasurer of the super PAC.

Harwell could not be reached for immediate comment Tuesday, but she told the Tennessee Lookout in October she had a legal staff and an accountant working on all of her finances and maintained that “we did everything above board.”

“We did not violate any rules. That I can assure you,” she said in October.

In addition to the $47,000, the super PAC received $10,000 from her husband, Samuel Harwell.

The super PAC also received $5,000 each from John Ingram and Orrin Ingram, $5,000 from Mark Cate, a principal with Stones River Group, $10,000 from former Gov. Bill Haslam and $20,000 from Joey Jacobs, former CEO of Acadia Healthcare Co.

The super PAC initially reported spending about $65,000 but then amended its FEC filing and showed it spent $118,219 and had $5,030 at the end of the primary. The group also spent $5,000 with Frost Brown Todd law firm.

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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 and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.