By Michael Cass, The Tennessean
Three election commissioners from the Nashville area have made campaign contributions this year to Republican legislative candidates from their counties, raising questions about their ability to deal with election disputes objectively.
Each of the three - including two who chair their county election commissions - gave $500 or more to a single candidate, according to state campaign finance records.
Critics said the practice makes it difficult to trust that the people charged with certifying elections and regulating campaign issues will do it impartially, though they already wear their partisan hearts on their sleeves.
"It's not illegal, but I think it really should be, frankly," said Dick Williams, state chairman of Common Cause. "Suppose there was a close call in some respect of that election where a commissioner had supported somebody, financially or otherwise. I would encourage election officials to abstain from that."
But all three of the election commissioners - Lynn Greer in Davidson County, Art McClellan in Sumner County and Jimmy Evans in Rutherford County - said they were acting within their free speech rights as citizens. All three are Republicans.
"Why would I want to give up my rights?" said McClellan, an attorney in Gallatin who gave $500 in May to Senate candidate Ferrell Haile, a friend of 30 years who has contributed to McClellan's own political campaigns and taken vacations with him.
Haile, a Gallatin pharmacist, is competing in a four-man Republican primary for the District 18 seat next week. The winner will take on Democrat Maria Brewer in November.
Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, said campaign finance law does not prohibit an election commissioner from giving to a candidate, even one in his own county. Blake Fontenay, a spokesman for the Tennessee Division of Elections, said commissioners only are restricted from serving as a campaign treasurer or manager.
Election commissioners are appointed as Democrats or Republicans, with the majority party in the General Assembly getting to choose three of the five members of each county's election commission. Republicans took power after the 2008 legislative elections, elevating Greer and McClellan to chairmanships.
Even so, Williams said, commissioners who choose to contribute to candidates should recuse themselves from voting on any matters that come up related to those campaigns.
"That may throw it into a tie vote or something, but so be it," Williams said, adding that he'd like to see the General Assembly address the issue with new laws.
'It would just depend'
None of the election commissioners said they would automatically recuse themselves from a vote affecting their political beneficiaries.
"It would just depend on the situation," said Evans, a Murfreesboro car dealer who gave $500 to state Rep. Mike Sparks of Smyrna in May. "If any ethical situation required me to abstain from voting, I would do it."
Evans said he consulted with Ransom Jones, chairman of the Rutherford County Election Commission, before putting campaign signs in his yard and contributing to Sparks, who is unopposed in next week's Republican primary but will face Democrat Mike Williams this fall.
McClellan said an election commission's duties are typically fairly simple.
"I can't imagine what issue would come before us," he said. "Our sole role as a commission is to certify the election, and that's purely numeric."
He did say, however, that he wouldn't "participate in a scenario that's going to cast doubt on the validity of the outcome of an election."
Greer, who has given $750 to state Rep. Jim Gotto of Hermitage since October, did not return a phone call seeking comment Wednesday. But he said earlier this month that he "can be fair" and has "favorites in almost every race."
But Darren Jernigan, a Metro councilman who will be Gotto's Democratic opponent in November, said Greer's donation could lead to trouble down the road.
"Certainly Mr. Greer has a right to give to who he wants, but in his position I would think he would want to avoid a potential conflict," Jernigan said.
Greer, a businessman, pointed out that Jernigan's campaign received a $1,000 donation in March from the Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Committee. Davidson County election commissioners Eddie Bryan and A.J. Starling - the commission's two Democrats - have both been longtime Tennessee AFL-CIO officials, with Bryan retiring as secretary-treasurer last August.
Jernigan said he solicited the Tennessee AFL-CIO contribution directly from Gary Moore, the organization's president and a retiring state representative, and didn't deal with Bryan or Starling. Neither Bryan nor Starling has given to Jernigan or any other candidate this year, state records show.
However, Bryan's wife, Mary, gave Jernigan $200 in February. Asked if he was sure he wasn't, in effect, getting a contribution from an election commissioner, Jernigan replied, "She (Mary Bryan) is the one who signed the check."
One election commissioner from Wilson County and one from Williamson County gave to candidates from other counties or even another part of the state. Wilson County's Sherrie Orange gave $25 to John Ragan, a state representative from Oak Ridge. Williamson's Paula McCord gave $50 to Mark E. Green, a Senate candidate from Ashland City, and $500 to House candidate Mary Littleton of Dickson.
Williams said those contributions were less disturbing than the in-county ones because they're not likely to confront a decision involving the candidates they backed.
But "as a general rule, I would encourage election commissioners not to contribute to any political campaign," he said.