After a legal battle that lasted over 28 months, the Registry of Election Finance voted unanimously Wednesday, in less than five minutes, to uphold an administrative law judge’s decision that grassroots parent group Williamson Strong is not a political action committee (PAC).
Registry board members could he heard, saying “finally” and “Amen” after the vote was taken.
Two co-founders of Williamson Strong, parents Kim Henke and Susan Drury, who quietly sat on the periphery of the Registry’s small boardroom in Nashville, said they felt the same.
In a few short moments, a case that has consumed the lives of five active Williamson County School parents over the past three years was suddenly over, but not easily forgotten.
The parents made trips to Nashville for hearings, depositions, consultations with lawyers and finally awaited a 90-day pause before administrative law Judge Michael Begley ruled that Williamson Strong should not be considered a PAC under current state law.
Five WCS parents co-founded the group, including Jennifer Smith, Jim Cheney, Sarah Barnard, Drury and Henke. Williamson Strong has a dominant presence on Facebook with about 5,000 followers. Like a watchdog organization, the group posts and reports on recent news and issues that affect public schools in Williamson County.
The group was brought before the Registry in 2015 when former school board member Susan Curlee filed a complaint in December 2014 against the group for allegedly acting as an unregistered PAC during the 2014 Williamson County Board of Education Election.
Curlee’s 100-page complaint consisted of information obtained from an Open Records Request from WCS, email correspondence between the district and the parents, screen shots of social media correspondence and a record of Williamson Strong spokesperson Smith’s request to view a county registered voter list. Curlee accused the group of endorsing candidates, holding a voter phone bank and possibly spending money over $250, which was disproven.
Ultimately, the group did not meet the requirements to register as a PAC and did not spend more than $250 on the endorsement of any candidate. The group spent a minimal amount for a website domain name and upkeep, while Smith spent about $75 on a voter list from her own personal banking account.
The group said their message during the 2014 election consisted of informing the public in an effort to “get out the vote.”
An uncommon aspect of the case is the statute that the registry used to fine Williamson Strong $2,500, which is stated in Tennessee Code Annotated TCA 2-10-102(12)(A) as follows:
(A) A combination of two (2) or more individuals, including any political party governing body, whether state or local, making expenditures, to support or oppose any candidate for public office or measure, but does not include a voter registration program.
The law can be interpreted as any two citizens spending a dollar for anything election related would have to register as a PAC, including a married couple who puts a bumper sticker on their car.
The statute has never before been used against another group in the history of the Registry except for Williamson Strong.
The Registry’s initial decision to penalize Williamson Strong on TCA 12(a), has led to current legislation that would change the definition of a PAC under 12 (a) to better align with the federal definition, which would eliminate confusion.
Other cases have also hinged on the Registry’s decision against Williamson Strong that led the group to appeal to an administrative law judge. The Registry also voted unanimously to defer a decision until August on those complaints relating to the PAC definition.
A state attorney is following the bill, or Senate Bill 1265, which has been recommended for passage by committees in the Senate and the House.
The bill would replace the current legal language with the following:
(12) "Political campaign committee" means:
(A) Any corporation or any other organization making expenditures, except as provided in subdivision (4), to support or oppose a measure; or
(B) Any committee, club, corporation, association, or other group of persons which receives contributions or makes expenditures to support or oppose any candidate for public office or measure during a calendar year in an aggregate amount exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000).
Other groups named in Registry complaints put on hold include Project 912, filed by Brentwood resident and attorney Roger Abramson; Williamson County Homeschool Coalition, filed by stay-at–home mom and WCS parent Gael Morkel; and Preserve Brentwood, filed by Brentwood-resident Thomas H. Carr, Jr.
“It is definitely a relief but sad that a politician like Susan Curlee can use the power of the government to attack citizens for 28 months,” Henke said.
“We don’t know why the Registry decided to break with their own rules and entire history to aggressively prosecute us,” Drury said.
Williamson Strong also filed a free speech lawsuit in federal court against the Registry, but that case has been stalled for two years, pending a state decision on the case’s appeal.
“Five proactive parents courageously stood up to the Registry’s unlawful prosecution of Williamson Strong, to protect not only their own rights but those of all Tennesseans to vigorously defend public schools,” said Williamson Strong attorney Tony Orlandi, of Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings PLLC.
“The Registry’s shameful choice to punish these parents and spend tax dollars persecuting parents instead of fully funding our schools shows just how backwards our state government’s priorities are. Today’s decision is a welcome turning point but not the end of Williamson Strong’s long fight to hold the Registry accountable.”