Republicans criticized for in-session fundraiser

Friday, July 22, 2011, Vol. 35, No. 29

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A campaign watchdog group and Democrats are criticizing Republicans for accepting thousands of dollars from special interests and lobbying firms at a fundraiser this spring despite a ban on in-session fundraising.

The event was held March 31 at the mansion of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.

Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press the fundraiser was legal.

"You can do that all day long," Rawlins said.

While lawmakers can't accept contributions during the legislative session, he said political parties can raise funds to pay for party operations and certain political activity, such as rent and salaries as well as get-out-the-vote activities and even television ads, so long as they do not expressly support or oppose a particular candidate.

Haslam spokesman David Smith said "the event was not out of the ordinary."

State parties, elected state officials and political action committees were required last week to file their disclosures for the first half of the year ending June 30. The state GOP's Legislative Campaign Committee's filing showed a number of individuals, businesses and groups — including political action committees — gave money during the session.

Among them were the Tennessee Medical Association, liquor retailers and Corrections Corp. of America, all of which had business before the Legislature.

The Medical Association, which represents physicians, was supporting Haslam's ultimately successful plan to cap non-economic damages like pain and suffering in medical malpractice and other personal injury lawsuits.

Liquor store owners successfully battled grocery stores over allowing wine sales.

And Corrections Corp. of America, which runs prisons nationwide, supported Haslam's budgetary reversal of a Bredesen decision to quit using a CCA-run prison.

Dick Williams of the advocacy group Common Cause said he hoped "some of these are folks just interested in supporting good government, but it's not a coincidence that most of the larger ones are identified with major legislation."

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester called the Haslam-hosted fundraiser a "shakedown."

"It is of great concern to me that the governor would conduct a fundraiser at the residence in the middle of session and accept contributions from people who had significant legislative issues on the table and the legislation had direct financial impact on these companies," Forrester said.

He added that "the spirit of the prohibition to raise money during session was in my view violated, if not the letter of the law."

Former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen didn't live at the governor's residence, but Forrester said Bredesen and the Tennessee Democratic Party "never conducted a fundraiser during the session during the entire time Bredesen was governor."

Bredesen did host fundraisers for legislative Democrats and the party outside of the in-session ban, which went into effect in 1996.

State GOP Chairman Chris Devaney dismissed Forrester's charges.

"I think the bottom line is they (Democrats) have nothing positive to talk about," Devaney said. "They have no plan, no leadership, no money. And so the only thing they have to do is throw darts."

Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature.