NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — An FBI investigation on Tennessee's Capitol Hill has put the spotlight on dark money secretly poured into elections from anonymous sources.
Now, an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation has uncovered new evidence that state regulators ignored warning signs about the problem.
“To me, it comes down to making sure that elections aren’t simply being bought,” said Nashville political activist Greg Hazlewood.
The FBI has not revealed exactly what it was seeking when agents raided a group of Republican lawmakers and staff members back in January. But, based on the players involved, the investigation appears to focus on an issue raised last summer by NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
Among the questions: how one of those lawmakers, Lewisburg Republican Todd Warner, got elected to the state House last fall.
Hazlewood, a law student who campaigned for the incumbent Republican representative Rick Tillis, saw signs from challenger Todd Warner’s campaign that made him suspicious.
“What really kind of got me noticing that this race is a little bit different was the amount of money that’s being spent," Hazlewood said.
"This guy was buying billboards, the sides of semi-trucks and painting them with this slogans and stuff. I mean, I’ve never seen that amount of money spent in that district – and to hear that he had previously filed for bankruptcy."
But when Hazlewood filed a pair of complaints with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance, the state agency that’s supposed to police campaign spending, the board decided to do nothing.
"To me," Hazlewood said, "it means something is broken in that part of the system. And it’s just absolutely crazy to me that the board dismissed the complaint without any investigation.”
As NewsChannel 5 Investigates first revealed last summer, Tillis was targeted in the Republican primary by a shadowy group that called itself the Faith Family Freedom Fund.
The attacks included robocalls, mailers, Facebook ads, even text messages.
But in a sworn campaign finance report filed in mid-July, the group claimed it had not raised or spent any money.
"I would certainly like to get to the bottom of this because anyone that's funding an attack ad or an attack campaign on an opponent without showing who they are, it reeks of political corruption," Tillis said at the time.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "It violates the law."
"Oh, it's definitely a violation of Tennessee state law," the incumbent lawmaker responded.
Facebook’s political disclosures show that, at the time of that July report, the Faith Family Freedom Fund had spent up to $597 against Tillis just on Facebook advertising.
All totaled, the group spent somewhere between $700 and $1,400, according to Facebook, which reports political spending in ranges.
But on its campaign finance reports, the Faith Family Freedom Fund has still not reported any money paid to Facebook.
That was among the issues raised by Hazlewood in complaints filed with the Registry of Election Finance back in October against Warner and the Faith Family Freedom Fund.
Yet, at their December meeting, Registry officials never bothered to look at those discrepancies.
Hazlewood's complaints were dismissed with little discussion.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Hazlewood, "From your perspective, how difficult would that have been for them to figure it out?”
"It would have taken five minutes, honestly," the activist answered.
Registry officials declined to answer questions on camera about the agency's handling of the case.
But, off camera, they suggested the outcome might have been different if Hazlewood had come to the meeting to argue his case.
"Why would you put the burden on just an average Joe who thinks something fishy is going on to prosecute of of these cases?" Hazlewood asked.
"That is absolutely out of this world and saying that doesn’t make any sense at all. They're the professionals. They’re the ones that the taxpayers are paying to do this, and I say ‘do your job.’”
One other curious tidbit: the Faith Family Freedom Fund reported one contribution of $7,500 from a Crawford Brandon out of Raleigh, North Carolina.
He was listed as being a restaurant operator.
But NewsChannel 5 Investigates could find no such person in Raleigh, and the North Carolina Restaurant Association said they had never heard of him.
The Faith Family Freedom Fund was registered in the name of a young woman out of Utah.
NewsChannel 5 has repeatedly tried to reach her, but she has never called back.
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