NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Is Bill Ketron getting special treatment again?
At its last meeting, the Tennessee Election Registry voted unanimously to audit the campaign accounts of Ketron, a former state senator and current mayor of Rutherford County. But it's what happened before the meeting, behind the scenes that caught the eye of NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
Last year, Bill Ketron was fined $60,000 for failing to file campaign finance forms for both his senate campaign and political action committee. But he never paid those fines. And by the way it's looking, it's possible he may never have to. As NewsChannel 5 Investigates has found, the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance, the same board that issued those fines, is now going against its own rules and procedures and reconsidering those fines.
The registry had tried for months to get Ketron to pay his fines and, after having no luck, the registry sent the case to the Attorney General's Office for collection. And, as we reported back in July, the Attorney General was preparing to sue Ketron for failing to pay the fines.
But emails show that's when Registry member Tom Lawless interceded, saying he wanted the AG's office's to "put a hold on," or essentially call off the lawsuit.
In the registry's interim director's response, she tried to remind Lawless that's not the way it works, telling him, "Once a case has been referred to the Attorney General's office, it is entirely within the Attorney General's control," and that she didn't "have any authority" to tell the AG to stop a case.
But Lawless persisted, saying, "The AG's office works for the registry, not the other way around," and, "if Herbert (referring to Attorney General Herbert Slatery) has an issue, he has my cell number."
And Lawless was just as insistent when we asked him about it.
"The policy says once the case is sent to the Attorney General's Office, it's in their hands?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Lawless.
"No, it's not," he replied emphatically.
But Lawless not only wanted to stop the AG's lawsuit against Ketron, he also wanted the registry to reconsider the fines and reduce or even eliminate them, even though the registry's rules say if a fine is not appealed or paid within 30 days, it becomes final. Yet Lawless told us reconsidering a case that has been sent to the AG isn't unusual.
"It's a normal process that we've used since I've been on this body. I mean, it happens all of the time," he explained.
However the AG's office said in a statement , "We can’t recall another time recently when that has happened."
On top of all of that, registry rules say that in order for the board to reconsider a fine, the candidate or PAC has to submit a formal request in writing. The registry's director told us, Ketron has never done that, and she reminded board members of that during their last meeting. Yet, board members went ahead and voted to reconsider Ketron's fines.
Lawless claimed Ketron had asked for reconsideration earlier this year. "At least verbally, when he was here. I think he was here in February or in March. Somewhere along in there and he said, 'I'd like you to reconsider it. I'd like you guys to re-look at it,'" Lawless stated.
But the Registry's minutes do not show Ketron appearing at any meetings this year. And the only request for "reconsideration" we could find was made by Lawless in those emails to the Registry director and other board members.
Interestingly, one day after Lawless' first email, we asked Ketron why he hadn't paid the fines and Ketron told us to call the Registry, insinuating that it had all been taken care of. "Probably if you go back and talk with them again before you run that story, you might want to do that," Ketron told NewsChannel 5 Investigates back in July.
The Daily News Journal later reported that Ketron said he had called two Registry members: Henry Fincher and Tom Lawless. "Have I talked with Bill Ketron about this? Yeah, in the past," Lawless admitted.
He and Ketron go way back and five years ago, it was Ketron as Senate Republican Caucus chair who helped get Lawless his seat on the registry.
But Lawless insists that is not a consideration here. "Do I know Bill Ketron? Yes. I've known Bill Ketron a long time. Am I going to cut him any slack? Absolutely not," Lawless said.
And we should point that Tom Lawless is the one who made the motion at the last meeting to audit Bill Ketron's various campaign and PAC accounts.
But those emails we obtained do raise questions about whether the registry members discussed Ketron's case amongst themselves which could violate the state's Open Meetings Act or Sunshine law which requires government business to be conducted in public.
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