Lawmaker's Campaign Pays Rent on Her Unused House - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NewsChannel 5 Investigates:

Lawmaker's Campaign Pays Rent on Her Unused House

(Story created: 7/10/06)

It's illegal for lawmakers to pocket campaign money. That is why NewsChannel 5 chief investigative reporter Phil Williams wanted to ask state Rep. Mary Pruitt about rent that she pays to herself.

What he got was a reaction that's like nothing we've ever seen.

"You tell the people what you are trying to do," the Nashville Democrat tells Phil Williams, grabbing him by the shoulders and turning him toward the camera.

"I'm trying to get the facts from you," Williams responds.

This is not the Mary Pruitt most people see.

Normally, one of the more reserved members of the state House, when we tried to ask about how she's spent her campaign funds, she wasn't the least bit reserved with us.

"You all set up an entrapment," she insists.

When Williams tries to ask a follow-up question, she snaps, "No, I'm talking."

At issue: an abandoned-looking East Nashville rental property that Pruitt bought just over two years ago, taking out a $28,000 mortgage.

Since then, reports show Pruitt pocketed about $5,000 dollars in campaign money the first year and $6,600 last year, saying she was paying herself to rent the house as a campaign office.

State regulators say that's legal -- as long as she's paying the fair market value and as long as it's really an office.

"When you look at it, it's boarded up," Williams tells Pruitt.

"No, it is not boarded up," she replies. "No, no, no, no, no. It is not boarded up."

In fact, Pruitt does have a campaign sign out front.

And after we began investigating, we spotted her with a helper, cleaning up the yard.

But neighbors will tell you that's about as much activity as they've ever see there.

"Is it any kind of office?" Williams asks one neighbor.

"No, it's no office or nothing," the man responds. "Just sits there empty."

Williams asks Pruitt, "How much did you use it last year?"

"I used it about once every week or two," she replies.

If that's true, then Pruitt and her staff must like doing office work in the heat, in the cold, even in the dark That's because Nashville Electric Service says that, during most of 2005, no one so much as flipped on a light switch. (Review the NES power usage report.)

Williams: "NES says there was absolutely no electricity running into that house for the last nine months of last year."

Pruitt "And no water, that's exactly right. And I'm so glad the people told me that you all have been over there checking on me and you can just keep right on checking on me, OK?"

Williams: "How can that be an office if there's no electricity?"

Pruitt: "We don't have any computers over there."

But it's not just a lack of computers. Remember: NES says her electric meter never moved -- even during hottest days of last summer.

Pruitt: "I don't need to walk in a house and start turning on everything.  Now anything else you want to check out over there?"

Williams: "There was nothing turned on in there for the last nine months of last year."

Pruitt: "Are you kidding?  That's what NES told you."

Pruitt's reports filed with the state claim she paid Nashville Electric $146 in campaign money for all of last year.

But NES says her electricity bill wasn't even that much. (Review the NES payment history.)

Still, when we tried to ask about the discrepancy, this is what happened:

Pruitt: "That again is what people are talking about - harassment of black elected officials."

Williams: "Asking tough questions is harassment?"

Pruitt: "Ain't tough questions.  Who sent you over here? That's a tough question.   Who sent you over here?"

She even accused the "NewsChannel 5 Investigates" team of tapping her phones.

Williams: "You're saying that we have tapped your telephone."

Pruitt: "I said somebody.  If you're that somebody, then it's you."

The Nashville Democrat argued that whatever she profited off renting her own house pales next to the money that she secretly spent on her campaign.

As Williams starts thumbing through her campaign financial disclosure reports, the lawmaker interjects:

Pruitt: "Oh, I don't put it there."

Williams: "So you don't report money that you put into your own campaign."

Pruitt: "I spend a whole lot of money in my campaign that belonged to me."

In fact, it's money that she did not include on campaign spending reports, even though it's required by law.

Pruitt: "Now you go and you find out accurate information, sir, before you come to me."

Williams: "I think my information is probably more accurate than these reports that you filed."

Pruitt: "Well, what do you plan to do about it?  Same thing?  Tell everybody all black folks are rogues and killers and this, that and the other?"

Williams: "It has nothing to do with the color of your skin."

Pruitt: "Oh, what does it have to do with then?"

Williams: "It has to do with telling the truth to the public."

Pruitt: "Oh, so, now, public, he says I'm a liar."

As to how the public can ever find out how this veteran lawmaker has really spent her campaign money, she had an idea.

"You go get the TBI and the FBI and anybody else you want to come and investigate me, hear?" she tells Williams.

After state regulators questioned the rent that Pruitt paid herself, she reduced the amount by a thousand dollars.

Still, that leaves her ahead by more than $10,000 so far.

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