Chairman: Registry of Election Finance should educate, not punis - WSMV News 4

Chairman: Registry of Election Finance should educate, not punish candidates

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Tom Lawless, chairman of Registry of Election Finance. (WSMV) Tom Lawless, chairman of Registry of Election Finance. (WSMV)
NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

The state board that oversees how campaign money is being spent has dismissed half the complaints it’s reviewed over the past two years, an analysis by the Channel 4 I-Team found.

The Registry of Election Finance reviews who may be skirting campaign finance laws and has the power to punish those who do by assessing civil penalties.

Since early 2015, the Registry has voted on 16 sworn complaints filed by members of the public.

But information compiled by the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance shows that board members ultimately levied just one civil penalty stemming from a complaint.

The Registry has yet to vote on two additional complaints, which will be presented at the board’s next hearing in 2017.

If you ask Chelle Baldwin why she gets involved with politics, her answer is simple: She’s a mom.

“I feel compelled to put my energy toward getting candidates in there who I feel are going to make good decisions for our schools,” said Baldwin, the mother of two students within Metro Schools.

So when Nashville witnessed one of the most heated school board races in its history, Baldwin dove in.

She filed a complaint against Stand for Children, a special-interest group that had poured thousands of dollars into campaigns.

The complaint, which was also filed by the group Tennessee Citizen Action, accused Stand for Children and four former candidates of violating campaign finance laws by exceeding contribution limits and illegally coordinating.

But when the issue finally came before the Registry, members voted unanimously to dismiss the complaint, clearing the parties of any wrongdoing.

“As a citizen who just wants everybody to be on an even playing field, that is frustrating,” Baldwin said.

She isn’t the only one frustrated. The I-Team reviewed complaints filed by citizens over the past two years.

Of 16 complaints the Registry reviewed in entirety, half were dismissed. The Registry voted to defer action in seven cases. That means during that time period, the Registry had officially issued just one penalty.

WilliamsonStrong was assessed a $5,000 fine in 2015. The Registry determined WilliamsonStrong, a group of parents, failed to register and file disclosure reports as a political action committee.

“Why do we even have the Registry unless it’s to squelch the citizens who might be pushing against the things the influencers don’t want pushed against?” Baldwin said.

But members of the Registry see it differently.

When asked whether the Registry was giving people a pass, Tom Lawless, outgoing chairman of the board, said “No, honestly not."

Lawless said his philosophy is that the Registry should focus on helping candidates, not punishing them.

“If I can have someone come in, get educated, not make the same mistake going forward and give them a break that one time, I’m going to do it,” Lawless said. “And if that makes me a bad commissioner, I accept that responsibility.”

So why did the Registry dismiss complaints or defer action?

WilliamsonStrong appealed its penalty to a judge, so in five similar complaints, the Registry deferred action to see what happens in court.

In three cases, the Registry found no wrongdoing; in three instances, the candidate or group fixed the issue in question; in two cases the Registry determined it did not have proper authority to act; in one scenario the Registry requested the Attorney General to weigh in; and in another case, the Registry allowed a candidate to amend a report in question.

“Do you think candidates might see this in the future and take advantage of that?” Autler asked.

“That’s a possibility, but then, we’re human,” Lawless said. “I can say this: when you see the same folks coming around, you very quickly recognize that.”

Drew Rawlins, the director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, said complaints are often dismissed because the Registry must investigate each one, regardless of merit.

“So if I get a complaint that somebody kicked their dog, it’s going to go to the Registry and they’re going to dismiss it because I don’t have the authority to make that decision,” Rawlins said.s

But to Baldwin, the lack of penalty assessments makes her question how much the voice of a citizen really matters.

“It squelches the citizen’s voice,” Baldwin said. “It makes you think twice before you speak up.”

Beyond sworn citizen complaints, the Registry can also investigate issues their staff discovers.

Over the past five years, the I-Team found the Registry has issued 156 civil penalties amounting to more than $370,000.

In more than 56 percent of those cases, the Registry took action because a candidate failed to file a report.

Copyright 2016 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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