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.