NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Capitol Hill Corruption
Did Campaign Funds Finance Sporty Lifestyles?
(Story created: 2/22/05)
FIRST ON 5: State law makes it illegal for lawmakers to live off their campaign funds. Now, there are more questions not only about a prominent state senator, but about others -- and their sporty lifestyles.
Look around state Sen. Mike Williams, and there's no doubt he's a NASCAR fan -- from the jacket he sometimes sports in the Senate, to his '96 Impala that once belonged to NASCAR's number 3, all the way down to his watch.
Yet, former girlfriend Denise Davenport says it wasn't like he was rolling in money.
"The only income that I was told of or that I saw that he had was the income that he received as a state senator," she tells NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.
It's an income of $16,500 a year.
"Do you have other sources of income?" Phil Williams asks Sen. Williams.
"No," the Maynardville Republican responds, "I work here as a legislator as I have for the 15 years I've been here."
Talk radio's Steve Gill is a frequent Williams critic. He says the senator's admission of using race tickets purchased out of campaign funds to repay his former girlfriend raises even more questions.
"We know he has been caught in this one. What else has he lied about?" Gill asks.
For example, there's hundreds and hundreds of dollars spent out of campaign funds on NASCAR collectibles.
"The things that I have are for purposes of giving away," Sen. Williams explains.
But Davenport says, "To my knowledge, those items were for personal use. He collects NASCAR items." . Phil Williams asks the senator, "Do you have a personal collection of die cast cars?"
"No, sir," he answers. "No."
But Davenport says "the majority of items that he purchased when I was with him were kept in his home."
In fact, in a sworn affidavit she says Williams had a collection of "over 100 die cast cars, 30 pictures framed and unframed, and an eclectic collection of Dale Earnhardt calendars, rugs, glasses, watches, tires, etc."
"Oh, I have some items, but not that I've purchased through the campaign account," the senator responds. "I've got some things that I've bought and paid for myself."
Gill says, "He's his own treasurer so there's nobody having any accountability for what this guy does."
But our investigation discovered Williams isn't alone. While he favors NASCAR, others buy Titans tickets -- tickets that they sometimes share with constituents.
"I've used them from time to time," says Rep. Randy Rinks, D-Savannah.
And that's not all Rinks uses his campaign funds for.
Between 2002 and 2004, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus paid out $38,000 in campaign funds to his American Express for "food, gas, lodging" and other expenses.
That's on top of the $58,000 he received in taxpayer money -- or per diem -- to cover his living expenses in Nashville.
Taxpayers pay $141 a day. If they are here for two days of meetings and stay just one night, they get $282. The legislative rate for a good hotel room in next to the Capitol is about $80.
"There is no way that per diem is going to cover all your meals while you are here or all your lodging while you are here," Rinks tells Phil Williams.
Drew Rawlins, director of the state Registry of Election Finance says, "If they are reimbursed by the state, they cannot pay their hotels -- kind of what people refer to as double-dipping."
The Registry regulates campaign spending.
Still, he says he can't audit lawmakers' accounts because that's the way those lawmakers wrote the law.
"Would you be willing to provide your American Express bills?" Phil Williams asks Rinks.
"I will to the Registry. I will to the Registry."
"To the Registry."
"But not to us?"
Gill says, "These guys have an obligation to come forth and show us that they are doing the right thing because the whole group is suspect at this point."
Denise Davenport says she was "very disillusioned quite honestly ... with what goes on behind closed doors."
But Davenport says, during the year that she dated Senator Williams, she came to realize such attitudes are all too common on Capitol Hill.
"I think the general public would quite honestly be a little shocked to find out what goes on there."
You can find out how to see how your lawmakers are spending their money by searching the Registry of Election Finance's database.