A USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee investigation: Lawmakers used campaign donations to pay for hundreds of thousands of dollars in purchases in 2016, raising ethics and accountability questions.
Ayrika Whitney, The Tennessean
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USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee reporters Dave Boucher and Joel Ebert investigate potential misuse of campaign funds and “per diem” funds by state lawmakers.
Ayrika Whitney, The Tennessean
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The report indicates Durham broke at least six individual state laws, but the board arrived at the 500 violations number based on Durham purportedly breaking the same law many times. The audit is the culmination of an investigation from June 2016.
Dave Boucher, Karen Kraft / The Tennessean
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Durham spent more than $10,000 in campaign funds on purchases prohibited by law, according to the report.
Joel Ebert, Dave Boucher, Kyleah Starling/The Tennessean
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Former State Rep. Jeremy Durham was part of real estate transactions structured in a way that raised eyebrows among real estate attorneys and former prosecutors.
Karen Kraft / The Tennessean
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How are lawmakers using your money?
An investigation into campaign finances usage
Jeremy Durham final campaign finance audit report: What does it say
Highlights of Durham audit investigation
Real estate transactions involving Jeremy Durham have attorneys puzzled
The Registry of Election Finance is set to send a memo to state lawmakers informing them that the only funds they should use for living expenses during their time in Nashville is their legislative per diems.
The board will recommend lawmakers adopt a stance that prevents using campaign funds to cover portions of living expenses, such as meal and hotel stays, that exceed their daily state-funded allowance, even at campaign events.
Any excess not covered by the per diems should be picked up by the lawmakers themselves, the board concluded.
“I guess I’m just having a hard time getting over this philosophical concept of they set what their per diem is and that’s what they should be able to live off while they are up here,” registry secretary Tom Lawless said.
“They are not up here to go to Morton’s or Kayne Prime,” he said, referring to two Nashville steakhouses where Lawless said meal prices can exceed $100. “They set the per diem. I can’t help it I live in an expensive city.”
The latest campaign finance reports indicate four lawmakers spent about $1,400 for food at Morton’s Steakhouse on days during the 2017 legislative session.
Registry director Drew Rawlins said Wednesday that lawmakers had sent him a request to weigh in on per diems after questions arose about double dipping between the state-funded legislator allowance and campaign finance funds after the audit of former lawmaker Jeremy Durham.
Earlier this year, an auditor with the registry highlighted examples of possible illegal double dipping by Durham and showed the Franklin Republican may have broken campaign finance law 690 times.
Auditors said Durham lacked documentation to show whether more than $7,000 he used in campaign funds to pay for expenses that may have been covered by per diems were legitimate.
Rather than fining Durham, the registry opted to encourage lawmakers to do more to address any potential abuse.
In June, House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, sent a letter to the registry asking members to outline what is legal when it comes to per diems and campaign spending in an effort to eliminate any confusion.
Rawlins said that after considering a broad survey of legislators’ spending, he believed the issue was of a relatively small concern, but that the board should issue an opinion.
“I think we’ve bandied about that question here and there, but we’ve never gone deep into the issue other than the Durham audit, obviously because it was so pervasive,” Rawlins said. “I will say looking at candidate reports, and (the state auditor) may tell me, but his was by far the worst that I have seen. You don’t see just numerous meals on most candidate reports, just one after another.”
An analysis by the USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee found, like Durham, 55 lawmakers spent thousands of dollars in campaign donations in 2016 on items they may have already used taxpayer money to cover.
But beyond what Rawlins called the “easy peasy” conclusion that lawmakers shouldn’t charge their campaigns for the same expenses they have used their per diems to cover, the board also agreed that since lawmakers themselves establish their per diems, the allowance should sufficiently cover their daily expenses.
Lawmakers receive an annual salary of $22,667, except the House and Senate speakers, who earn $68,001. They also are eligible to receive $1,000 a month to cover expenses in their home districts, including “telecommunications, office, secretarial and other assistance or incidental expenses,” according to state law.
Today, lawmakers who live more than 50 miles away from Nashville are eligible for a $220 per diem, while those who live within 50 miles receive $59 a day. In 2016, the period analyzed for the report, lawmakers who lived outside the 50-mile radius received a $204 daily payment.
Rawlins said the board was offering a response to a memo requesting the board’s opinion.
“It’s not going to have a massive effect,” he said.
“But,” said board secretary Tom Morton, “if you have no guidance I can almost assure you that you are going to have to fine these people or it will happen more and more.”
Reporters Dave Boucher and Joel Ebert contributed to this report.
Reach Jordan Buie at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-726-5970 and on Twitter @jordanbuie.
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