Lawmakers Double-Dip, and You Pay - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NewsChannel 5 Investigates:

Lawmakers Double-Dip, and You Pay

An exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation has discovered lawmakers playing games with your money.

The game: some call it double-dipping.

The object: to see how much money they can pocket.

The problem with this game is that it not only involves their campaign money. It's also played with your money. So when they win, you lose.

It might be funny if it was just a game, taking money out of one pile to cover expenses and money out of another pile for the very same expenses -- in other words, double-dipping.

But try doing that to your boss, says tax activist Ben Cunningham. "You'd be fired the next day."

But NewsChannel 5 Investigates discovered that some lawmakers play that game with real money from their bosses -- the taxpayers.

"We certainly don't expect them to come up here and try to game the system and get more and more money from any source they can."

Take, for example, state Rep. Sherry Jones, a Democrat from Nashville.

Last year, Jones was invited by the National Conference of State Legislatures to attend a policy conference in Chicago at no expense to taxpayers.

The group agreed to "pay participants' travel, meal and lodging costs."

NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams went to Capitol Hill to ask Jones about her trip.

Williams: "They paid for your travel."
Jones: "They may have."
Williams: "They paid for your lodging."
Jones: "They may have."

But Jones also dipped into her campaign account, reporting that she spent $429 for a Delta airlines ticket and $272 dollars for Omni Hotel -- she says, for that same conference.

Williams: "You just used campaign funds and pocketed the money, is that what happened?"
Jones: "No. We will just look and see what happened and if that as a mistake, we'll fix it.  It's not that big of a deal."

But Jones didn't stop there. She also filed for a daily expense allowance -- called a per diem -- of $564 dollars for the same trip.

Jones: "So we always get paid per diem.  It's state law."
Williams: "The per diem, though is for your expenses.  All of your expenses were paid.  So why would you charge taxpayers?"
Jones: "My response to you is maybe we made a mistake. If we did, we'll fix that."

All totaled, that's an extra $1,200 for an all-expenses paid trip.

"To have them game the system and do this kind of double-dipping, it's just disappointing and disheartening," Cunningham says.

"It makes me angry."

But the king of the double-dippers may be Rep. Joe Towns, a Democrat from Memphis.

Williams: "Have you in my opinion been double-dipping?"
Towns: "Well, in my opinion, Phil, no."

Last year, we confronted him about hotel bills charged to his campaign account, at the same time he was billing taxpayers for a daily expense allowance that's supposed to pay his hotel.

"I will correct it," Towns said at the time. "That's the best that I can do."

Well, take a look at what we've discovered now: a charge to his campaign account to the Wyndham Hotel in Philadelphia for $712.91 cents.

Then, he sent his hotel bill to taxpayers, again for $712.91, for reimbursement.

On top of that, claiming a daily expense allowance of $1,100.

Williams: "Is that double-dipping?"
Towns: "Well, I don't consider it as double-dipping.  Maybe you do."

And back in August, Towns charged his campaign $407 for a hotel stay associated with a conference here in Nashville, at the same time billing taxpayers $750 to cover his expenses.

"It's wrong," Cunningham says. "It's wrong -- pure and simple."

But Jones wasn't so sure.

Williams: "Do you think it's wrong?"
Jones: "I don't have any reason to think it's wrong."

Jones later sent a fax to NewsChannel 5, saying that she was reimbursing her campaign -- but apparently keeping the daily expense allowance.

Cunningham says, "If they are willing to double dip hundreds of dollars here and there for their own personal benefit, goodness knows what's going on" with the state budget.

State regulator Drew Rawlins says Towns had been told before that he can't double dip.

"The campaign law specifically say that you cannot use campaign funds for personal use," Rawlins say.

So why didn't regulators at the state Registry of Election Finance catch what we discovered this time?

Cunningham says, "They at the very least ought to be checking these for clerical errors, getting back to the representative and saying, 'Hey, what's going on here? Why are you being paid from two different sources?'"

Rawlins responds, "It's more difficult than it seems."

In fact, it was a NewsChannel 5 investigation that first uncovered Sen. John Ford's use of campaign money to pay for a daughter's wedding.

We also discovered state Sen. Mike Williams' use of campaign money to buy NASCAR tickets -- tickets that former girlfriend says were for their dates.

And who could forget Rep. Mary Pruitt's payments to herself -- supposed rent on a house that we discovered really wasn't much of a campaign headquarters?

Rawlins says, "It would take a lot of time to go through every disclosure and look at every expenditure they have."

Then, there's Rep. Randy Rinks and the thousands paid out of his campaign to American Express for "food, gas, lodging" -- even though taxpayers were paying him for those expenses.

Williams: "Would you be willing to provide your American Express bills?"
Rinks: "I will to the Registry. I will to the Registry."
Williams: "To us?"
Rinks: "To the Registry."
Williams: "But not to us?"
Rinks: "No."

Yet, after NewsChannel 5's disclosures, the Registry board insisted that someone had to file a sworn complaint over those apparent allegations -- instead of just investigating the violations themselves.

Registry member Will Long was the most vocal about the board not ordering an independent investigation.

Long: "If somebody wants to do that and bring it before the board in a proper fashion, that's fine."
Williams: "What about the board?"
Long: "I don't anticipate their doing that."

Cunningham asks, "What are they there for?"

Still, as a result of new ethics laws passed this year, the Registry will soon begin random audits to see what candidates are doing with their campaign funds instead of just waiting for the next NewsChannel 5 investigation.

The Registry, with two recently added auditors, has a staff of six people.

Back to NewsChannel 5 Investigates

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