Stockard on the Stump: Ogles draws warnings from Federal Election Commission

December 9, 2022 6:01 am
U.S. Rep.Andy Ogles voted for Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan rather than frontrunner Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California for House Speaker. (Photo: John Partipilo)

U.S. Rep.Andy Ogles (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Federal Election Commission is threatening U.S. Rep.-elect Andy Ogles with an audit or other enforcement if he fails to fix discrepancies in his campaign finance report.

The agency sent Ogles’ treasurer, Thomas Datwyler, letters Dec. 6 listing a litany of problems within the campaign’s report. Those include incorrect totals and information that deflates his cash on hand, failure to disclose the identity of anyone who contributes more than $200 in a cycle and failure to properly disclose the receipt of funds to Ogles for TN-05 from a committee called Take Back TN-05.

Yet another letter from the FEC notifies Ogles’ treasurer that more than one contribution appears to exceed the $2,900 contribution allowed per election from an individual, other than an authorized committee or qualified multi-candidate committee, which are limited to $2,000 and $5,000 respectively.

The letter points out he must make refunds if he received prohibited contributions.

A search of Ogles’ report shows he received contributions exceeding $2,900 from several people.

He also received more than $55,000 from the Cruz 25 for 22 Victory Fund, the entity set up by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who campaigned for Ogles shortly before the November election.

“Terrible optics,” was how a campaign finance watchdog described U.S. Rep.-elect Andy Ogles’ campaign finance reports, which included contributions in excess of the legal limit, incorrect totals and the $50,000 contribution by his campaign treasurer to a PAC supporting Ogles — which, if proved, would violate the firewall between campaigns and PACS.

Other notables who gave Ogles money include former Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson, economist Arthur Laffer, former state Sen. Mae Beavers, former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, financial guru Dave Ramsey and attorney Kline Preston IV, who has ties with a Russian banker and extolled the virtues of Vladimir Putin in a Nashville interview. Those contributions appear to be within federal guidelines.

Preston surfaced in a 966-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russian interference in the presidential election and political process.

In addition to the problems with his campaign finance report, Ogles faces a complaint filed by a former congressional staffer over a late second-quarter filing with the FEC and the report of fundraising numbers that were much lower than the amount he announced in May. The complaint claims Ogles filed his report late to cover up the fact his fundraising fell far short of the amount he made public in the spring.

So far, though, nothing has come of revelations that Ogles’ former treasurer, Nashville car magnate Lee Beaman, a longtime political donor, gave $50,000 during the campaign to Volunteers for Freedom PAC, which spent $24,000 on ads backing Ogles. It is illegal for a campaign to coordinate with super PACs for independent expenditures.

Saurav Ghosh, director of federal campaign finance reform for the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C. watchdog, said Thursday proving coordination between the candidate and the super PAC would be exceedingly difficult based on the FEC’s tests.

The campaign treasurer typically wouldn’t be privy to the type of material a candidate wants to have featured in advertising, Ghosh says. And though Beaman might have had a close relationship with Ogles.

“I think it’s terrible optics,” Ghosh adds. But without information showing communications between Beaman and Ogles about what type of ads the super PAC should run, it would be hard to cross the threshold of “proving coordination,” Ghosh says.

The old second guess

State lawmakers are getting in the habit of second-guessing the legislation they pass in a rush. This comes from the attitude that we can always go back and fine-tune next year if what we do this year has unintended consequences. They say it all the time.

Several senators already are questioning their wisdom in passing an abortion ban that criminalizes doctors who might need to perform abortions to save the life of a mother going through a dangerous pregnancy. Legislation also is expected to surface in 2023 to allow abortions in cases of rape and incest. It’s likely to face a high hurdle.

In a similar vein, senators raised questions recently about the state’s third-grade retention law, which passed in 2021 during a special session designed to bolster student learning in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic when many stayed home or attended school virtually.

During a Government Operations Committee meeting last week, Republican Sen. Page Walley of Bolivar challenged the new law that governs third-grade reading scores. The measure allows students to be held back if they aren’t proficient – based on the state’s main test – and don’t go to summer school or take tutoring during their fourth-grade year.

For years, only 33% of Tennessee’s third-graders have been reading at their grade level, meaning two out of three are struggling to grasp the written word.

Buyer’s remorse? Not for the first time, lawmakers are questioning legislation they passed. This time, it’s about a move to hold back third-graders who don’t meet standardized test metrics.

Walley, who is well aware of that statistic, nevertheless, says he’s heard more about the third-grade retention than any other issue since the Legislature adjourned in May. Parents, teachers and administrators feel like the state is “overstepping” its bounds rather than allowing local leaders to determine who advances and who goes through the third grade again, he says. New rules would allow parental challenges.

Walley acknowledges the danger of social promotion and admits he doesn’t have the solution but contends the state shouldn’t be using such a “rigid process” for young students.

“I’m really uncomfortable with the idea that this is the best way,” Walley says.

In an email this week to the Tennessee Lookout, Walley says the state should pause the third-grade retention law “until we can reach a reasoned consensus about how best to proceed. I trust that our Senate Education Committee will want to discuss how best to proceed.”

He was echoed last week by Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, who points out that holding back two-thirds of a class could be “skewing every part of the learning system.” She calls it a “simplistic approach to a complex problem.”

Bowling also raised questions about the methods being used to teach children to read, since kids have been learning for decades.

Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma (Photo: John Partipilo)

Despite the ruckus, rules that will be used as part of the new law squeaked through the committee on a vote split between House and Senate members. The measure failed among six senators but barely passed among House members on a voice vote.

Several school districts opposed the third-grade law this year, including Anderson County Schools in East Tennessee. Metro Nashville Schools also objects to the measure.

Metro Nashville Schools Director Adrienne Battle sent parents a letter in September saying educators and districts statewide oppose the law because it creates “even higher stakes” for yearly tests and “is not a pedagogically sound way of assigning interventions and support to students.”

She points out that unless the General Assembly revokes or changes the law before the end of this school year, the district will be forced to adhere.

Though it will likely come up when the Legislature convenes in January, pausing or changing the law will be difficult.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally says even though he is “sensitive” to the Anderson County School Board, which is in his district, he points out the “bar set by the General Assembly is not a high one” for children.

“It is thoroughly reasonable that third-grade students have a rudimentary level of proficiency in reading before advancing. Local school boards should be able to make their own decisions on many things but the state also has an interest in maintaining a certain degree of uniformity in standards across the state,” McNally said shortly after the board passed a resolution opposing the law.

McNally acknowledges that some degree of social promotion “based on progress” could be acceptable but that limits are needed.

Hillsdale-backed charters return

Just four months after American Classical Education withdrew three applications from the Tennessee Public Schools Charter Commission, the charter operator is coming back with requests to open schools in five districts. Five is greater than three, they tell me.

Apparently, the charter operator doesn’t understand that the state, most lawmakers and millions of taxpayers don’t want them.

Former state Sen. Dolores Gresham, the Senate’s chief scold during her tenure as Education Committee chair, released a statement this week saying thousands of parents are clamoring for the organization to start schools in Tennessee.

Thus, they’ve submitted letters of intent to start schools in Clarksville-Montgomery, Rutherford, Jackson-Madison, Maury and Robertson counties school districts. That means they’ll be using the Hillsdale College curriculum, which is not approved by the state, and using tax dollars to prop them up, taking money away from traditional public schools.

This begs the question: If they’re so good, why don’t they just start their own private schools and let someone else pay? The answer could be that they aren’t really that great.

A Rutherford County woman holds a sign making her feelings clear about American Classical Academy charter schools at a Thursday hearing. (Photo: Justin Kanew/Tennessee Holler)
A Rutherford County parent protesting a recent appeal for a charter school by American Classical Schools. (Photo: Justin Kanew/Tennessee Holler)

But the other answer could be that the lines have become so blurred between charter, private and public schools these days that the money can go anywhere. 

American Classical might have been approved earlier this year if Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn hadn’t been caught on tape at a Franklin reception – attended by Gov. Bill Lee – saying teachers are “trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.”

Lee sat silently nearby as Arnn trashed the entire profession, though he later said he supports teachers.

Lee’s charter school commission, which has the authority to trump local school board decisions, didn’t have to take action this fall because American Classical withdrew its requests at the last minute as public opposition mounted. But the commission declined to release its director’s planned recommendations.

With the election done, the charter operator, whose board is made up largely of Hillsdale officials, is back at the doorstep ready to make another run at state money.

For what it’s worth, the Legislature likely hasn’t changed its position against American Classical since Arnn’s words surfaced in a TV report.

Says Sen. Walley, “I sense that well – rightly or wrongly – remains poisoned by the remarks of the president.”

We’ll see how much power the Legislature wields over the charter school commission.

Walking a tightrope

Two days after the Tennessee Lookout published a story on Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson’s legislation that could close investigation records in non-criminal deaths, the Senate Republican Caucus issued a statement saying he sponsored SB9 after a constituent pointed out the law is not clear about what information related to a death is public record if a crime is not involved. Typically all of the records become public once an investigation is finished.

“Leader Johnson is committed to continuing to work with all interested parties in advance of the bill being heard in committee during the upcoming legislative session. He also feels strongly that it’s important to balance the privacy rights of a person who died under tragic circumstances with the important First Amendment rights of the free press. Leader Johnson believes that the release of audio, photographs or any other recordings taken inside of a private residence where a person tragically passed away – and when no crime was determined to have been committed – harms families and provides no benefit to the public,” the statement says.

Republican Sen. Jack Johnson of Franklin is proposing a bill that would close public records in death investigation. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Republican Sen. Jack Johnson of Franklin is proposing a bill that would close public records in death investigation. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The bill is believed to be a reaction to anguish by the Judd family to the suicide of their matriarch, country music legend Naomi Judd. Ashley Judd wrote in a New York Times column she wants to change Tennessee’s law to close records. The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government opposes the bill.

Here’s the problem: When people’s feelings get hurt, they want to shut it all down, without any thought about the consequences. What they don’t realize is that journalists don’t want to show video of the inside of Naomi Judd’s home or publish Ashley Judd’s interviews with investigators. In fact, for a long time, suicides weren’t even reported unless they involved a public figure or caused a public spectacle. They still make me squeamish. 

While most of us older news reporters tend to be a bit jaded – mainly when it comes to dealing with politicians – we do have some compassion.

But throwing out public records laws at the request of the rich and famous only increases the chances for wrongdoing among those who really can pull strings, especially when it comes to investigating one of their own. We’ve seen enough of that to know better.

Maybe because we’re: “Lost in a one-story town.”

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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.