Former candidates, Stand for Children deny campaign finance viol - WSMV News 4

Former candidates, Stand for Children deny campaign finance violation

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Four candidates who ran for the Metro School Board stated they did not violate campaign finance laws, according to letters filed with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.

Thom Druffel, Miranda Christy, Jane Grimes Meneely and Jackson Miller lost their respective races last August.

Since then, the Registry has been investigating whether the former contenders and the pro-charter group Stand for Children violated campaign finance law during the most recent election.

In letters submitted to the Registry, attorneys for the candidates asked for a continuance on the matter.

On Wednesday, the Registry voted to continue the matter until the next meeting in December so attorneys can have time to prepare.

The Registry is investigating whether the candidates illegally coordinated with Stand for Children and whether the candidates accepted contributions from the group that exceeded the legal limit.

In September, the Registry announced it could potentially issue the candidates and Stand for Children a fine that amounts to $685,164.

But on Wednesday, lawyers for the ex-candidates and Stand for Children denied the allegations.

"It's going to be dismissed because they haven't violated any laws or regulations," said Gif Thornton, who's representing Christy, Miller and Meneely.

Stand for Children, Inc., consists of a political action committee and an independent expenditure committee, which function as separate entities.

Independent expenditure committees, or IECs, spend money independent of the candidates and campaigns.

Political action committees can contribute to local candidates up to $7,600 per election. But PACs cannot contribute to a candidate during the days leading up to the election, known as the blackout period.

But the Channel 4 I-Team discovered that Druffel and Daniel O’Donnell, who works for Stand’s PAC, met during a blackout period.

Four hours later, a phone call started circulating in Druffel’s district that addressed a negative mailer and advocated for Druffel. A Facebook post with similar language appeared on Druffel's page the same afternoon. The phone call was paid for by Stand for Children’s independent expenditure committee, which is allowed to make expenditures regardless of the blackout period.

At the time, O’Donnell told the I-Team it was his day off and he was working as a volunteer.

In a statement to the Registry, O’Donnell noted he was on vacation and worked as a volunteer. Volunteering is not considered an in-kind contribution under campaign finance rules.

He also stated they did not discuss the calls that were made four hours after the meeting and he had no knowledge of the calls.

O'Donnell attached e-mails indicating he had instructed the candidates to only contact his personal email address during the blackout period.

In a letter to the Registry, Stand denied any coordination between the IEC and candidates, as well as coordinated expenditures between the IEC and the PAC.

All four candidates denied they worked with anyone from the IEC, emphasizing the only person they worked with from Stand was O’Donnell.

“As further evidence of the fact that I never coordinated with the IEC, I believe the volume and content of direct mail pieces from the IEC made a negative impression on prospective voters and had negative impact on my campaign,” Druffel wrote in a sworn statement.

Meneely, Miller and Christy echoed the sentiment that some of the mailers from the IEC harmed their campaigns.

On Wednesday, Christy appeared at the Registry meeting and spoke to reporters afterward.

"What smart, rational, well-intentioned Nashvillian is going to be willing to put themselves out there to run for office knowing they may lose, but also knowing they may find themselves in a public proceeding like this even if they do everything they can to follow the law?" Christy said. "So there's more at stake than my reputation. It's also the future of Nashville's leadership."

O’Donnell and Krista Spurgin, the national campaigns director for Stand, Inc., also gave sworn statements.

“I approved and executed all the expenditures,” Spurgin wrote. “At no time did Stand Independent make expenditures based on information that came from the candidates, their political campaign committees, their agents or Stand PAC.”

O’Donnell and Spurgin noted Stand abides by a firewall policy that establishes how employees for the PAC and IEC should not communicate.

Druffel is being represented by Dan Haskell.

Stand for Children is being represented by Stephen Zraleck of Bone McAllester Norton.

"As we've said from the beginning, Stand for Children and its committees acted within the boundaries of the state's campaign finance laws," wrote Zraleck in a prepared statement. "We respect the Registry's decision to postpone action on this matter and look forward to discussing our case in further detail at a later date."

The Registry will also look at e-mails sent between O'Donnell and the Martha O'Bryan Center, a nonprofit in Nashville. In the emails, O'Donnell discusses trying to find campaign workers for the four campaigns.

It is illegal for nonprofits to get involved with political campaigns.

"It is incorrect to assume that Stand PAC was offering to pay canvassers anything; I was merely sharing information about that opportunity and helping the candidates identify canvassers, but the candidates' committees were the ones paying the canvassers," O'Donnell wrote in his statement.

Gerard Stranch, the attorney who filed the original complaint on behalf of Tennessee Citizen Action, said Stand for Children should be held accountable.

"These candidates are new to the political cycle, they didn't understand what was going on, and it's clear they trusted Stand and O'Donnell to lead them and that was a mistake," Stranch said.

But Zraleck maintained his client did nothing wrong.

"We are confident this will be a favorable outcome for Stand for Children," Zraleck said.

Meneely, Miller and Christy are being represented by Guilford Thorton, Jr., and Brad Lampley of Adams and Reese.

Thornton and Lampley are lobbyists for the pro-charter nonprofit 50Can, according to documents filed with the Tennessee Ethics Commission.

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