NewsNewsChannel 5 Investigates


Taxpayers Pay To Promote Tre Hargett's Name

Posted at 6:56 PM, Nov 25, 2014
and last updated 2015-09-07 14:24:09-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee's secretary of state is appointed by lawmakers to keep the state's official records and oversee state elections.

But the way that Tre Hargett has spent your money has caused some to question whether he's running for something else -- at taxpayer expense.

Now, following new questions raised by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, Hargett is admitting that he "missed the mark" on one such expenditure.

"You realize this is not Tre Hargett's money?" we asked.

"Absolutely," he agreed. "This money belongs to taxpayers."

Hargett raised eyebrows recently when he decided to replace the traditional "I voted" stickers that are handed out on Election Day.

Instead, his office ordered new stickers that prominently featured his name.

"Quite frankly, our voting stickers are a tradition at the polling places," Hargett told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

"Not with your name on it," we noted.

"No, they're not - and we did that promote accountability."

The secretary of state said he wanted to put his name out there so voters would know whom to call about elections.

So Tre Hargett had 3 million Tre Hargett stickers printed at taxpayer expense.

The cost: $6,855.

The veteran politician claimed that it never occurred to him that the Tre Hargett stickers would look political.

"I think where I missed the mark, frankly, Phil, I wasn't looking through a political lens," Hargett said.

We asked, "So you're saying this was a mistake?"

"I'm saying we missed the mark," he responded, later adding: "I should not have put my name on it."

But take a look at the state's voter registration site, and there's Tre Hargett's photo.

And on election night, dozens and dozens of tweets noted that the state's election results came "via @SecTreHargett" -- which links back to Tre Hargett's personal Twitter account.

That account, Hargett acknowledged, is maintained with the help of a state employee again at taxpayer expense.

That employee's salary: $33,000 a year.

"I am the face of the Department of State," Hargett said. "I take a great deal of satisfaction in knowing that people know that they can get to me to get answers."

"But it also builds your name recognition," NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted.

"I don't look at it that way, frankly," the secretary of state insisted.

Inside Department of State's offices, you'll also find Tre Hargett's face in framed photos and Tre Hargett's name printed on the walls.

There are also Tre Hargett pamphlets and Tre Hargett pencils.

And every single employee's business card has to be printed with, you guessed it, Tre Hargett's name on top.

"What happens if you're not elected secretary of state again? I mean, all of that is going to be wasted," NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted.

"Certainly business cards would be reprinted whenever I leave office," Hargett said.

"And you're ok with that cost to taxpayers?"

Hargett answered, "I think that, frankly, I think that whenever I leave office there are things that are going to be done differently, that probably things will be done differently."

There are also Tre Hargett lapel pins -- thousands of them -- also produced at taxpayer expense.

Total cost: $6,647.

"They are secretary of state department pins," Hargett said.

"They are Secretary of State Tre Hargett pins, promoting your name," NewsChannel 5 Investigates interjected.

"I don't think they promote my name," he insisted. "I think they promote the secretary of state's office."

That office also publishes the Tennessee Blue Book, but Tre Hargett's name on the cover wasn't enough.

So Tre Hargett had Tre Hargett bookmarks printed. In fact, we counted Tre Hargett's name five times!

"So why should your name be on there five times?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.

"That does seem like a lot," he acknowledged. "That's another thing that we need to look at through the political lens and try and figure out could we do better."

Then, there are the big lottery-style checks that Hargett delivers to libraries around the state.

Even though an independent board decides who gets the grants, the fake checks are signed "Tre Hargett" -- also at taxpayer expense.

Total cost for those big checks this year alone: $1,215.

"You don't actually sign the checks that come through from the treasury. So why put your name on the ceremonial checks?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.

"Because those come through the secretary of state's office and it comes through the state library and archives," Hargett responded.

"But it's a way for you to claim credit?"

"It's really about shining the light on the great work that those libraries and archives are doing. I certainly am not trying to claim credit."

Just like some Tre Hargett portfolio and Tre Hargett cups that he bought with old campaign funds, critics question if all this Tre Hargett stuff might be the beginning of another Tre Hargett campaign.

In fact, our investigation discovered that, on and off, between the fall of 2012 and the early part of this year, Hargett put a friend on the state's payroll as his director of policy.

Dennis Berwyn is a political consultant from North Carolina.

"He was not a political hire. In his job description nor his title did he do political work," the secretary of state said.

Berwyn would fly in on Mondays, leave on Thursdays, getting paid as much as $6,000 a month without benefits.

Among his projects: a Tre Hargett newsletter and a PR campaign called Tennessee Business Spotlight -- also sponsored by Tre Hargett.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Where does it say that the secretary of state needs to do a Tennessee Business Spotlight?"

"Great question, Phil. It doesn't," Hargett admitted.

He said that it was just an effort to shine the spotlight on some good Tennessee businesses.

As for the man behind the campaign, it turns out he's also the registered owner of the Internet domain

"Does that look bad?" we asked.

"It doesn't look good," Hargett answered, "but I think it's also that he meant to protect me."

And while some might question all this Tre Hargett spending, Tre Hargett insisted that he knows that it's not Tre Hargett's money.

"If it's causing anybody to think that our motives and our intentions are not good, then we need to take a long hard look at that."

Hargett had been repeatedly mentioned as a potential candidate for governor in four years.

But just two days after our interview, he took the unusual step of formally issuing a statement to the Capitol Hill Press saying that he is not running for governor.

Scroll through videos above to watch extended clips of the Tre Hargett interview