State election officials investigating Rep. Jeremy Durham - WSMV News 4

State election officials investigating Rep. Jeremy Durham

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Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin (WSMV) Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin (WSMV)

State election officials voted to investigate the campaign finance account of embattled lawmaker Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin.

The probe will look into whether Durham moved money between his campaign and his private title company.

State election officials voted on Wednesday to investigate the matter and audit Durham’s account, after receiving information from the Attorney General’s office on Monday.

The Attorney General is already investigating Durham for allegedly making inappropriate contact with women at the legislature.

The letter references a recent interview with Benton Smith, a former legislative assistant, campaign worker and employee of Durham’s company, Battleground Title and Escrow, LLC.

Smith told investigators that Durham instructed him in 2015 to deposit at least one check into Battleground’s account to cover expenses for the company.

Durham’s campaign finance report shows he wrote a $2,000 check to Smith “professional services” on May 25, 2015. Another $500 check was made out to Smith earlier that day, but for another address.

But Smith indicated that the money was not for professional services.

“This check from Rep. Durham’s campaign account was not for ‘professional services,’ was not campaign related or for any political work performed by me, and was deposited into his title company’s operating account in order to cover expenses of the business at his discretion,” Smith wrote in a statement.

Smith also touched upon the $500 check.

“I have no recollection of being paid $500 for political or campaign related services on May 12, 2015,” Smith said.

The I-Team also obtained text messages Smith provided to attorney general investigators.

A screenshot shows a conversation between Durham and Smith on May 12, 2015.

“Would you still be able to get me a check for last week?” Smith asked Durham.

“Of course…do we have any closings this week?” Durham replied. He soon after texted, “I can write something out of my campaign but it must get counted towards what I’ve put into the company.”

“Yes sir,” Smith replied. “I’m waiting on a check to go to file some stuff with the register.”

The Attorney General’s office said it forwarded this information to the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance because the Registry of Election Finance has the authority to investigate “these matters.”

Drew Rawlins, the executive director of the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, said the registry plans to subpoena Durham’s bank account.

“I believe the public does not want campaign contributions to be used for personal use by any candidate,” Rawlins said in a phone interview. “Any information we receive from the state AG’s office we take seriously.”

On Wednesday, Durham responded to the Channel 4 I-Team’s questions via email.

“I’ve reviewed my bank records and I never moved one cent between my title company and my campaign,” he wrote. “No check from my campaign was ever deposited into my title company. It's a fact.”

Durham indicated that Smith left on bad terms, but did not elaborate further.

The former staffer told the I-Team that he stands by everything in the statement he gave to the attorney general’s office, but declined to comment further.

In a statement to the Attorney General’s office, Smith said he voluntarily left his employment with Durham’s company and “ceased” his association with him in August 2015 due to concerns about Durham’s conduct and activities.

Under state law, candidates cannot use campaign funds for personal use. Rawlins said if they do, they can be possibly fined up to $10,000 per civil offense, or 15 percent of the amount in question if the amount exceeds $10,000.

Rep. Glen Casada, R-Thompson Station, said he finds the allegations "very concerning." 

"We will still be friends after this, but there are certain kinds of behaviors that disqualify you from public office," Casda said in a phone interview. "Misuse of public funds is one of the big ones." 

Casada said if the text messages between Smith and Durham are real, Durham should resign.

"This kind of behavior should not be tolerated in the General Assembly," Casada said.

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