School board candidate, Stand for Children face questions about - WSMV Channel 4

School board candidate, Stand for Children face questions about recent interactions

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A candidate for the Metro Nashville School Board is facing questions after meeting with a representative of a political action committee this week.

District 9 candidate Thom Druffel met with Daniel O’Donnell, the local director for the special interest group Stand for Children Tennessee.

The organization has thrown support behind Druffel, along with several other candidates running for school board this election cycle.

The meeting took place at the Holiday Inn Vanderbilt, where Druffel works.

O’Donnell was seen entering and leaving the building Tuesday, one day after a mandatory blackout period kicked in. Under the law, PACs cannot contribute to a candidate during this period.

In an email, O’Donnell said he took the day off from work. An attorney that represents the organization added that O’Donnell was acting as a volunteer that day. Volunteer activity does not qualify as a contribution, according to campaign finance law.

But it’s the content of that meeting and what happened afterward that make attorney Gerard Stranch wonder if an investigation is needed.

“From my experience this not only looks bad, it is bad and it shouldn’t have happened,” said Stranch, who has done work involving campaign finance.

The meeting started around noon. Four hours later, voters in District 9 started receiving a phone call advocating for Druffel.

The message addressed a recent mailer attacking Druffel, as well as prioritizing the community’s desire to build a new high school in Bellevue.

Druffel took to his campaign Facebook page that same afternoon. He also addressed the mailer and prioritizing the building of a new high school in Bellevue.

The phone call was paid for by Stand for Children IEC, which stands for independent expenditure committee. The IEC has the same address as the PAC and both branches are tied to the same organization, Stand for Children. But the idea is that the entities operate independently and do not communicate.

Independent expenditure committees can spend money whenever they want to advocate for a candidate. But Monday marked the beginning of a blackout period for PACs, a time when it is prohibited to make contributions to a candidate, according to Drew Rawlins, the executive director for the state Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance.

But Stranch said PACs and candidates should strive to avoid all communication.

“I would tell them this is something you don’t even play around with,” he said.

Communication and coordination is also entirely prohibited between independent expenditure committees and candidates.

So were the meeting and the phone call connected?

Stranch said it looks bad.

“It doesn’t matter, even if the conversation was completely innocuous, it looks bad,” he said.

Druffel denied any wrongdoing.

"We've been extremely careful about being above board the entire time,” he said.

The candidate also said he had no knowledge of the phone call until the I-Team informed him.

“The fact that a phone call went out addressing the same issue around the same time is a coincidence?” asked reporter Alanna Autler.

“Absolutely, there's no way I would have done it and I would hold that to a firm no matter what,” Druffel said.

Druffel also denied that he discussed the phone call with O’Donnell during Tuesday’s meeting,

“I think we were trying to detail for the last 10 days what we were going to do and nothing more than that,” Druffel said.

O’Donnell said he also did not know about the phone call.

In an email he wrote, “The PAC doesn’t make contributions to candidates during the blackout period. And I met with Thom on a day I took off from work.”

So what’s the point of a blackout period?

During this time, the public can’t see who is donating to who.

"I think the public wants to know where candidates are getting their support,” Rawlins said.

Stranch said while he personally has not donated to Druffel’s opponent, his law firm has.

Paul Murphy, an attorney representing Stand for Children, issued this statement:

Stand for Children and its political committees observe both the letter and spirit of the law. Any suggestion that there has been improper coordination between Stand and the Druffel campaign is categorically false.

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