NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Super-wealthy people, some from out-of-state, want to help decide who represents you on Tennessee's Capitol Hill without you knowing it.
That issue — the experts call it "dark money" — is heating up as lawmakers begin considering legislation to shine a light into those dark places.
Over the weekend, the groups that don't want to disclose who's funding their efforts took to social media to rally their troops to turn out in opposition to the bill (HB 1201/SB 1005) when it comes up in the House Local Government Committee on Tuesday.
It's an issue that former state Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, understands well.
"I guess I look at it this way," Overbey told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
"Candidates have to disclose their donations and their expenditures. Political action committees have to disclose their donations and expenditures. And I think other groups that are trying to influence the outcome of an election should be treated the same."
For 16 years, Overbey was widely viewed as a reliable conservative in the Tennessee legislature.
That is, until he backed a Republican governor's plan to extend healthcare for Tennessee's uninsured, which quickly put a target on his back.
"A group known by the name Americans for Prosperity decided to get involved in that race, in that campaign, and sent direct mail pieces and sent troops on the ground into the district to go door-to-door," Overbey recalled.
Americans for Prosperity was founded by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.
AFP sent teams into Overbey's East Tennessee district — right in the middle of the Republican primary — to deliver the message that "Doug Overbey betrayed Tennesseans."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "You have no doubt that they wanted to defeat you?"
"Not only to defeat me," Overbey responded, "but probably to send a message to other candidates that if you don't move in lockstep with us, if you don't do exactly what we want you to do, this is is what we will do to you."
There were also mailers branding Overbey as "Taxpayer Zero."
But unlike traditional campaigns where voters can know who's funding them and how much they're spending, Americans for Prosperity's funding was secret.
"That was an accountability effort to let his constituents know about his voting record," AFP state director Tori Venable told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
"We never advocated for his election or defeat."
Overbey laughed at that argument.
"They were doing this during July and August which was prime campaign season," he continued.
We noted, "They were using phrases like 'Doug Overbey betrayed Tennesseans,' and yet they were not using the magic words."
"That's right," the former state senator said.
"They are carefully crafted, but certainly why do you say words like that unless you are trying to achieve an end — and that end would be trying to cause me damage."
Now, following a scandal involving former House Speaker Glen Casada — including secretive attacks on a Republican House member — legislative leaders are pushing campaign finance reforms that groups like Americans for Prosperty are denouncing as an attempt to "censor" conservative groups.
The disclosure would only be triggered if a group spends more than $5,000 or more in the 60 days before an election on communications that show or mention a candidate.
"We can't say vote for or vote against someone. We actually have a PAC to do that," said Gary Humble, founder of Tennessee Stands, a group that formed in opposition to COVID mandates.
Humble is also running for the state Senate against Republican Jack Jackson of Brentwood.
"So if I show you a picture of Cameron Sexton, and I say his name, am I in trouble now if it's 60 days prior to an election?" Humble asked in a video posted to social media.
Humble claimed lawmakers are trying to keep his group from telling voters just how awful they are in the days before an election.
"God forbid that their actions have an impact on whether or not you as their constituents choose to vote them back in office. Isn't that something?"
But NewsChannel 5 Investigates examined the language of the proposed legislation, and the notion that it's intended to silence conservatives does not pass the truth test.
It applies to all groups, conservative and liberal.
In fact, a study by the non-partisan research group Open Secrets found that dark money — that money that's not disclosed — topped more than $1 billion on the federal level in 20-20. The largest chunk of that was spent to help Democrats.
And the proposed legislation does not censor anyone.
It just requires disclosure of money spent on trying to influence those campaigns.
"Increasing transparency of money spent on elections is not a limit on speech and does not bar anybody from speaking," said Patrick Llewellyn, director of state campaign finance with the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.
Llewellyn said voters have a right to know who's paying to get candidates elected or defeated — regardless of the words they use.
"Ads that attack or promote a particular candidate in an election season do influence elections," Llewellyn told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
We noted, "They may put out a brochure saying 'Lawmaker X is a horrible person' without using the words 'vote against.' In your mind, it's the same thing?"
"In my mind," Llewellyn said, "if an ad attacks or supports a candidate for elective office, it's an election-related ad."
Now, Americans for Prosperity, the group that went after Doug Overbey with that negative campaign right in the middle of an election, is pushing back, saying it "won't be silenced" by this legislation.
Overbey said disclosure does not silence anyone.
"It doesn't mean they can't put out their propaganda, but it at least lets the public know who is involved and how much is being contributed," he said.
SPECIAL SECTION: Revealed
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