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VOL. 42 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 16, 2018

Complaints question Harwell's PAC help, $3.1M self-loan

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NASHVILLE (AP) — A campaign finance complaint claims that Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell received help from a political committee beyond what's legally allowed, while another complaint contends she doesn't have the money to back up a $3.1 million self-loan to her campaign for governor.

One of the complaints filed this week center on a non-campaign website and a mailing by the Nashville lawmaker's leadership PAC, Tennesseans for Good State Government. They also follow the PAC's recent release of a TV ad that raises more questions about separation of Harwell's campaign, the PAC and her official office.

Tennesseans for Good State Government's legal adviser, Austin McMullen, called the claims baseless and said the TV ad was done within the law.

The complaints were brought by a conservative group's president, Sharon Ford, who almost challenged Harwell for her House seat in 2014. The criticism comes amid a contested race for governor with a crowded Republican primary.

According to one complaint, a December mailer by Harwell PAC, the PAC's former name, should have been reported as a $24,845 in-kind contribution to the candidate because it includes a personal letter from Harwell that constituted coordination. It wasn't reported as such, the complaint says.

When a PAC coordinates with a candidate in Tennessee, that spending is considered in-kind and is subject to contribution limits.

The mailing and almost $24,000 in PAC spending on a Harwell website should have been subject to contribution limits of $11,800 for the primary, the complaint contends.

Additionally, registration for the website funded by Tennesseans for Good State Government lists Harwell staffer Kara Owen's government phone number and the site was registered while she was working, the complaint says.

Owen said it was legal because the domain was originally registered for the speaker's official annual survey.

"She, like many other members, gave constituents an opportunity to express their opinions on issues coming before the General Assembly," Owen said in a statement.

Another complaint questions whether Harwell can financially back a $3.1 million self-loan. In income tax summaries, Harwell and her husband Sam reported to The Tennessean that their household income was $369,000 in 2016 and $1.23 million combined from 2013 through 2015, the complaint says.

McMullen, the PAC's legal adviser, said using the leadership PAC includes zero tax dollars and lets her connect with Tennesseans and advocate for solutions to issues they face.

"We will promptly send a letter to the Registry of Election Finance refuting the baseless statements. We are confident that the actions taken regarding the leadership fund, campaign and other matters are well within the law," McMullen said in a statement.

Campaign finance complaints go before the Registry of Election Finance.

An ad by Tennesseans for Good State Government that recently hit TV airwaves was not mentioned in the complaint. It features Harwell, standing behind the House chamber's rostrum, speaking to the camera about legislative accomplishments. During the 2010 governor's race, former Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey also shot an ad inside the Capitol.

A disclosure with the Federal Communications Commission lists Tennesseans for Good Government's address as the Cordell Hull state legislative building. It also says the ad is concerning "Tennessee Governor Race."

If that ad were deemed an in-kind contribution, those are banned for lawmakers during the legislative session that started in January.

McMullen said state law lets the PAC be used for the work of the speaker, including communication with the citizens of Tennessee. There are more restrictions on ads that call for a candidate's election or defeat, he said.

"Since this ad does not expressly advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate, it is within the law and not subject to the additional restrictions," McMullen said in a statement.

Harwell is running in the primary against U.S. Rep. Diane Black and businessmen Bill Lee and Randy Boyd. Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh are running as Democrats.