State Registry of Election Finance

The state agency tasked with overseeing campaign finance laws for state and local elections voted to fine Williamson Strong, a parent group, $5,000 for engaging in political activities without proper registration.

Complainant Susan Curlee (back center) sits with supporter Patsy Writesman on her right before members of the registry board.

Members of the state Registry of Election Finance include Norma Lester, Memphis, Chairperson; Tom Lawless, Nashville, Secretary; Kent Coleman, Murfreesboro; Henry Fincher, Cookeville; Patricia Heim, Nashville; and Tom Morton, Bristol.

The state Registry of Election Finance voted to issue two civil penalties to parent group, Williamson Strong Wednesday with separate fines in the amount of $2,500 each, following a formal complaint filed against the group.

Williamson County school board member Susan Curlee, District 12, filed the complaint Dec. 9 with the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance.

The penalties were issued for failure to register as a political action committee (PAC) and failure to file campaign disclosures with the Williamson County Election Commission.

Attorney Ben Gastel of Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings, PLLC represented Williamson Strong at the hearing Wednesday in Nashville.

Gastel and Curlee sat at a long table with six registry board members.

The Registry also discussed issuing a “show cause” to W-PACE, Williamson Political Action Committee for Education, a group comprised of teachers, and mentioned the possibility of issuing the same to Williamson County Home School Coalition.

Registry board member Patricia Heim said W-PACE made endorsements before re-registering as a PAC in March.

Curlee implicated both organizations in her complaint late last year.

Heim began the discussion regarding Curlee’s claim that Williamson Strong is an unregistered PAC by citing Williamson County Schools “Be Nice” slogan.

“I didn’t see a lot of being nice here because everybody’s just doing a lot of back fighting. Let’s be nice at this table.”

“Some of the information was unnecessary,” Heim said about Curlee’s approximately 100-page complaint.

“I don’t need to know that there are a lot of other groups out there. In the community and around the nation that are Strong Schools, Strong Communities.”

“I’d like to stick to the facts. I don’t care about somebody’s job affiliation. I just care about what you did and why you did it,” Heim said.

At the last Registry hearing March 11, Curlee took issue with WCS parent Susan Drury’s affiliation with Williamson Strong as one of the original members and her employment with Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Curlee said in March that Williamson Strong seems to mimic larger “union-backed” organizations across the nation with the name Strong Schools, Strong Communities.

“My take away is that Williamson Strong organizers really acted in an attempt to collude, coordinate … some political activity,” Heim said.

Heim then cited documentation including an email between Jennifer Smith, Superintendent Mike Looney and a sitting board member in her claims.

Heim referenced a May 30 email to Looney from Smith in which she inquired about composing a document about Williamson County Schools based on a publication titled “How Our Schools Are Funded,” published by Friends of Metro Schools, Advocates for Education.

She also cited a June 16 email from Smith to what Heim said were “selected identified candidates,” or then incumbents, in which Smith offered “basic campaign help.”

Heim also took issue with Smith reposting on the Williamson Strong Facebook page a statement by W-PACE listing Williamson County commissioners that the organization supported as “friends of public education,” as well as board members during the summer elections.

Heim also argued that Smith’s purchase of voter data on June 16 for $75 with the county’s election office was “not comparable” to voter information for school board elections.

“I found some interesting desires in choosing which election history she wanted to have on these voters,” Heim said. “You don’t ask for partisan voting history of all districts when only even numbered districts are running for reelection.”

She also cited another email in which she said founder Kim Henke advocated for candidates.

However, Heim acknowledged that Williamson Strong did not reach the $250 requirement according to state law that would require the group to file campaign disclosures with the county’s Election Commission.

“When we look at all of the expenditures, they did not meet requirements for professional reporting and filing with Williamson County.”

“Do they have a reporting obligation? Probably not,” Heim said.

“Did they act to promote and support the election of certain school board members? Absolutely,” Heim concluded. “I do think they acted very politically and their purpose was not education and voter awareness.”

Campaign Financial Disclosures TCA 2-10-102 (12) lists a few separate definitions for organizations to qualify as a PAC, in which the committee discussed its nuance.

Although Williamson Strong did not spend over $250, which would require them to file campaign disclosures by the law, the committee determined that the organization advocated for certain candidates, which falls into a portion of the law.

Heim advised Williamson Strong to “own up” to being a political organization.

Registry board chairman Norma Lester agreed.

“You can’t prove intent, but something just didn’t smell right,” Lester said.

“For those who filed the complaint, I think it’s a testament that people are paying more attention and are just getting sick and tired of what’s happening,” Lester said.

She also added that such organizations and candidates need to be “mindful” and make sure their “roles are clearly delineated.”

At the last hearing attorney J. Gerard Stranch described Williamson Strong as a “get out and vote,” group, however, on Wednesday Heim took a a different stand.

“It’s hard for me to believe that you weren’t encouraging voters to vote for certain candidates,” Heim said, of the organization’s efforts to form a call bank to reach out to voters.

“I don’t want to send the message that I don’t want people to engage. I want engaged voters,” Heim said.

Registry board secretary Tom Lawless made a motion to fine the group $10,000 for each penalty, but the motion failed.

“That’s awfully steep,” Heim said. “I can’t support that.”

The board instead approved $2,500 for each offense.

“I am proud to represent a group of parents, mainly mothers, who are passionately dedicated to public education in Williamson County,” Gastel said.

“This complaint and this ruling is an attack on those mothers for that dedication. It is an absolute travesty of justice, and it is a sad day to be a Tennessean when mothers cannot participate in the political process without being fined by the Tennessee state government.”

Board members did not allow Gastel to rebuke any claims during the meeting.

“No statements. We have enough statements,” Heim said previously. 

Williamson Strong can decide to ask the Registry to reconsider the case within 15 days, contest the decision in 30 days or appeal the case within 60 days.

“It is unclear exactly what we will do, but it is abundantly clear this is just the beginning of this fight,” Gastel later told the Herald.

(8) comments

We surround you

It is a sad day for the 1st Amendment

JenniferK

Just the latest battle in Susan Curlee's war against parents, teachers, school administrators and free speech.

Richard

You Williamson Strong people are better people than me. I do not know how you had the patience to sit through yet another meeting where you are not allowed to mount a defense but have to just sit there and be lectured. How any American, regardless of political ideology, is not appalled by this process I am amazed!

Since I keep reading the oh so creative “why not just get a dollar from every like you bought from Turkey” comments, I would just like to say that I have been to Turkey and I am willing to contribute if the fine is sustained in appeal.

WalterKurtz

Anyone that would cheer this decision while simultaneously gnashing their teeth over the IRS' treatment of Tea Party groups during the last election cycle lacks integrity.

That doesn't really tell us anything we didn't already know about Victor Andrews already though does it.

VictorA

Fighting corruption and illegal activity begins with one person with the intestinal fortitude willing to take on a few powerful people at the risk of being vilified by some of those that are either duped, ignorant or just willing to turn the other way when laws are broken in protecting their interests. Susan Curlee is a political giant - there is NOT another elected official in Williamson County that would have been willing or brave enough to fight this illegal and corrupt organization.

WilliamsonStrong may consist of some innocent, unknowing member parents, teachers, administrators and even a certain superintendent, but the leaders knew exactly what they were doing in breaking laws and obviously felt that 'political laws' are for 'thee but not for me'!. Those innocent WS members would be wise to disown the corrupt & illegal activities by their WS leaders and join other legitimate PAC's that play by the rules.

Richard

We will see if you sing the same tune when the 912 group is sitting in front of the same kangaroo court, getting lectured and being unable to respond with counter evidence to similar charges, with Susan Curlee to thank for starting this stampede.

Hopefully, though, before that occurs Williamson Strong will appeal, and right this wrong, and the members of the Registry of Election Finance will learn they are actually supposed to allow groups to show cause and offer a defense.

Thanks for the concern and advice for us “innocent” WS admirers. You are so kind and caring – or should I say “carrying” since you are so about constitutional rights, other than the rights of parents who do not share your political views or view Looney or our schools. Quite hypocritical, I would say. So, for me, personally, I don’t take advice from people who pick and choose when they champion constitutional rights only when they benefit them, and then celebrate others losing the same rights.

Tennessee Education

I don't think the Williamson Strong liberal community agitators like playing by the rules....wtg Susan

WalterKurtz

Almost a year in an Susan Curlee still not focusing on her actual job, but using the legal system to go after her enemies list.

It's not really surprising MARS fired her for lousy performance.

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