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REVEALED: Legislative leaders engage in fundraising frenzy, hitting up special interests for money

Donation collection bowl at Democratic fund raiser.jpeg
Posted at 5:57 PM, Feb 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-28 13:36:55-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — It's a part of your state government you've probably never seen: powerful lawmakers engaging in a fundraising frenzy in the hours right before a legislative session begins.

These high-dollar fundraisers — some call them "shakedowns" — aren't illegal.

It's just the way business is done on Capitol Hill.

On January 10th and 11th, NewsChannel 5 Investigates hit the streets of downtown Nashville to observe the annual ritual.

Monday, January 10

8:00 a.m.

It's the day before Tennessee lawmakers return to session.

As a city awakens, some of Capitol Hill's best-connected special-interest lobbyists will soon be heading to breakfast.

NewsChannel 5's cameras were at 4th and Church.

This breakfast, it turns out, wasn't for the hungry; it was for the powerful.

It was an invitation-only event where it would cost you $250 a head to rub shoulders with the third most powerful man in state government.

That man is House Speaker Cameron Sexton.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton fundraiser.jpeg
House Speaker Cameron Sexton heading to fund raiser

As Sexton entered the building, NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked: "Can we come up and visit in a bit?"

The Crossville Republican answered, "Well, it's a fundraiser, so..."

Not sure what that meant, we decided that we would eventually find out.

But, first, we watched as Speaker Sexton was joined by a steady stream of lobbyists — all of them responding to the Sexton's invitation to contribute to his own political action committee, a PAC designed to help keep him and his fellow Republicans in power.

Because fundraising is banned during session, these pre-session fundraisers have become an annual tradition.

There was a lobbyist for the state's wine and liquor distributors.

We asked, "Are you here to kiss the ring?"

Ryan Haynes answered, "No, not at all. Thanks very much. Sorry."

Coming down the sidewalk next, we spotted the lobbyist for the beer industry.

There was a lobbyist for the Tennessee Hospital Association and other healthcare clients.

Another group of attendees represented one of the well-financed groups pushing for charter schools and school vouchers — as did another set of lobbyists, who also work for the sports betting industry, along with payday lenders and the state's wine and liquor stores.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates decided to see if we would be allowed to go inside House Speaker's fundraiser.

Up on the 20th floor, we stepped out into a part of Capitol Hill culture the public never sees.

Among the many lobbyists was one who works for a number of clients, including the private prison giant CoreCivic and its millions of dollars in state contracts.

Soon, a staff member demanded that we leave.

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Sexton staff member asks NewsChannel 5 to leave Speaker's fund raiser

"I'm sorry, sir, gentlemen. This is a private event. You are welcomed to be downstairs, but this is a closed event."

We followed up, "So the public is not allowed to see what's going on here?"

"This is a private event, sir."

Our NewsChannel 5 Investigates team was hoping for a different outcome, but the experience may speak volumes.

Special-interest lobbyists are able to stay in the room with the Speaker of the House.

But, because we had not shelled out $250, we were kicked to the street.

8:30 a.m.

Right after the Speaker's breakfast, lobbyists headed to 417 Union.

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Location of lobbyist appreciation event

It was billed by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, as a lobbyist appreciation breakfast.

It was not a fundraiser, but it was face time with the number two man in the state Senate.

12 p.m.

Noon at the upscale Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally was hosting a fundraiser where, according to the invitation, for $1,000 you could have lunch with the man who runs the state Senate.

Jeff Ruby Steakhouse.jpeg
Location of Lt. Gov. Randy McNally's fund raiser

We asked McNally, "So when people spend a thousand dollars for lunch with the lieutenant governor, what do you think they're expecting?"

"Well, I hope they're not expecting anything," the Oak Ridge Republican said.

Outside the fundraiser for McNally's PAC, we again spotted the liquor lobbyist and the beer lobbyist.

There were lobbyists for Google, as well as a for-profit company that wants to run charter schools, lobbyists for the state's homebuilders and contractors and, again, the CoreCivic lobbyist.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally.jpeg
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally

NewsChannel 5 noted to the CoreCivic lobbyist, "Some people call these 'shakedowns.'"

"It's just all part of the way it is," Nathan Poss answered. "Just like you're doing your job, we're doing ours."

We asked McNally about what he thought about the term "shakedowns."

"I think maybe in the olden days it was," he responded.

Unlike back then, McNally insisted, there's no pressure on those special interests to contribute.

"It's not a quid pro quo, you come to my lunch and I'll take care of you. It's not one of those. It's just that you have to have money to run campaigns, and they're willing to help you because of your past record."

1 p.m.

Four blocks away at the 1230 Club on Broadway, Gov. Bill Lee was holding his own pre-session fundraiser.

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Location of Gov. Bill Lee's fund raiser

Again, it's invitation-only for those who are willing to write the big checks.

Inside, we heard the governor speaking, but our producer was quickly turned away, told it was a private event.

Outside, we spotted another lobbyist whose clients include Facebook and the health insurance industry.

We soon headed back to Capitol Hill.

2:15 p.m.

We got a call from the House Speaker's office.

Speaker Sexton was ready to talk to us.

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House Speaker Cameron Sexton

"We've never said you have to give money," he insisted.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Do you think people feel pressured to contribute when they are about to have business before the House?"

"I don't think so," Sexton said.

"I mean, I think you could make that argument anytime throughout the year if they know you are in between sessions and you're not having an election. I don't buy that."

But we checked, and in 2018, when Sexton was just a House member, his PAC raked in a measly $26,500.

After he took the gavel in 2019, those contributions shot up to $430,636.

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CAM PAC comparison

"There's different levels of how people provide support depending on who you are," Sexton explained.

We asked, "But does that suggest that people feel pressured to contribute if the person has power?"

"That's a question you can ask the people who give money. I don't think anybody at home when I do fundraisings feels pressure. I don't think there's any groups that feel pressure."

As day turns to night, the quest for campaign cash isn't over.

Tuesday, January 11

8 a.m.

A new morning, and the legislature gavels back into session at noon, which leaves just four hours left for fundraising.

Sen. Ken Yager fund raiser.jpeg
Sen. Ken Yager with lobbyists at fund raiser

At Puckett's on Church St., we found a breakfast hosted by the head of the Senate Republican Caucus, Sen. Ken Yager, R- Kingston.

Again, we were seeing a lot of the same faces over and over, people walking in with checks in hand.

One man lobbies for payday giant Advance Financial, while another works for the state's broadcast companies.

There was also that lobbying team that represents the sports betting industry, payday lenders and school privatization forces, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, a lobbyist whose clients includes the state's short-term lenders, and a lobbyist who clients include more school privatization groups and Koch Industries.

8:30 a.m.

Two blocks away, the legislature's Democrats were having their own fundraiser here inside a downtown Nashville high-rise.

Donation collection bowl at Democratic fund raiser.jpeg
Bowl used to collection donations at Democratic fund raiser

There are so few of them, and they have so little power, they decided to have one combined event.

"I think the pre-session fundraisers are something that really developed because we are not allowed to raise money during the session, which is actually a reform that's worthwhile," said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville.

Unlike their Republican colleagues, the Democrats welcomed our cameras inside.

This event was hosted by a lobbyist who clients include the Tennessee Titans.

Here, you still had special interests dropping off checks, but the size of this event paled by comparison.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted to Yarbro, "There are some people who still consider this to be a shakedown."

With a chuckle, Yarbro replied, "I don't think people are coming upstairs today to visit with the Democratic Caucus becuase they feel like it's a shakedown."

In fact, Yarbro said the real money tends to follow the power.

"Historically, you'll see that special interests support the party in power a lot more -- and, right now, you've got a super-majority that's very keen on power and pays a lot of attention to the people who aren't supporting it," Yarbro insisted.

"So, yeah, I do think people feel pressured to give sometimes."

And what goes on here behind closed doors, he argued, isn't good for democracy.

"You have too many people who don't have to go out and look for support in their community because they can just get it right here in Nashville from the special-interest community."

Privately, some lobbyists tell NewsChannel 5 Investigates that they would rather not play the game.

But they are afraid if they don't, it may hurt their clients and, ultimately, their business.

Which is why the practice continues.


Related story:

Estimated $60M spent yearly to influence state officials

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