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State Ethics Commission dismisses 'illegal coordination' complaint against Taxpayers PAC

Zach Vance • May 26, 2018 at 11:17 PM

Nearly one month removed from the May 1 primary election, the feuding continues between the Taxpayers Fighting Back for Washington County political action committee and Washington County Republican mayoral nominee Joe Grandy.

On May 14, the Tennessee Ethics Commission voted unanimously to dismiss a complaint filed by Grandy that alleged his Republican opponent Mark Ferguson and members of the Taxpayers PAC were “illegally coordinating.”

In his complaint, Grandy claimed Kent Harris, a Ferguson supporter and the Republican nominee for the Washington County Commission’s 2nd District, seemed to be “interlocking directorate” with Alpha Bridger, treasurer of the Taxpayers PAC.

He also mentioned that during the same time Harris recorded a robocall for the PAC, he was listed as a ticket sales contact for a Ferguson fundraiser.

An Ethics Commission official told the Johnson City Press on Friday that the minutes for that May 14 meeting had not yet been approved, but did confirm the board voted unanimously to dismiss the complaint.

Harris, Bridger and other members of the PAC traveled to Nashville to attend the Ethics Commission meeting, and claimed a board member “made the comment that Grandy’s intentions were clear and that he probably ‘got what he wanted out of (the complaint).’”

“The Ethics Commission Board unanimously voted to dismiss this fraudulent and frivolous complaint against Taxpayers Fighting Back PAC, as it had no merit,” a May 23 press release from the Taxpayers PAC said.

In response to the dismissal, Grandy said the goal of his complaint was to make sure the playing field was level and everyone was playing by the same rules.

"The dual role of Kent Harris with both the PAC as well as fundraising for the Ferguson campaign caused concern, and although we are disappointed with the dismissal, we recognize it was their role to investigate and make that decision, and we accept it,” Grandy said.

Apparently, members of the PAC aren’t just going to walk away, and in their press release, contends that Grandy “recklessly” violated state ethics laws by filing his complaint.

“There are, however, consequences for such actions. At a time convenient for Taxpayers Fighting Back PAC, the group intends to file appropriate complaints for these violations committed by the Grandy Campaign with the Tennessee Ethics Commission. Similar offenses have often carried a fine of up to $10,000 per offense,” their press release said.

According to its rules, the Ethics Commission has the authority to assess civil penalties against individuals who file complaints, if they know the information in the complaint is untrue, if the information in the complaint is deemed “reckless” or if the complaint constitutes abuse of process. 

Before calling for unification in the Republican Party, Grandy made the point that Harris, while serving as a Tennessee Republican Party Executive Committeeman, was prohibited from taking sides in a contested primary election.

“We did not pursue a complaint with the state party because his illicit involvement did not constitute an unfair advantage in the race. Now that the nomination has been decided, we look forward to enjoying Mr. Harris’s full support for the general election campaign as he is required to do as an incumbent party official,” Grandy said.

In Section 4 of the Tennessee Republican Party bylaws, it states that neither the Republican State Executive Committee, as a body or its officers, shall endorse a Republican candidate in a contested primary election.

However, there are two exceptions: If a Republican opponent, as a member of the General Assembly, voted for any redistricting plan that the party opposed; Or if a Republican opponent, as a member of the General Assembly, voted for a person who was not the nominee of the Republican Caucus of the House or Senate, for any officer of the House or Senate.

Grandy did vote for a redistricting plan in February 2016, but he was not a member of the General Assembly.

In response, Harris said he has a right to support any candidate of his choosing.

“I have the right to support any candidate of my choosing, as did (former Republican Executive Committeeman) Kelly Wolfe four years ago when he held the same state position. In 2014, Wolfe ran the ‘Two Toms and a Joe’ campaign. The Joe was Joe Grandy. I don't recall Joe complaining about that,” Harris said.

“If the state feels like I am violating any party rules, I will gladly resign my position as SEC member. But, for the record, so Joe will understand: I will not vote or support him as mayor.”

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