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Want to Get Parents Engaged in a School Board Election? Think Again.

“I don’t want to send a message that I don’t want groups of people to get engaged. I want engaged voters. I absolutely want engaged voters”. – Patricia Heim, Registry member

Below is a little more detail on what Registry appointees actually said and their rationale for fining Williamson Strong.

The Registry “show cause” hearing is your chance to defend yourself from untrue allegations… except we will not actually allow you to speak. 

Curlee’s sworn complaint against Williamson Strong was an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ kind of thing. She included a wide array of false allegations and insinuations as well as irrelevant “charges” and articles from all over the country.  As the months went by, she became more singularly focused on the idea that Williamson Strong is a “front group.”

Curlee submitted a sworn complaint in December, then a new summary and more docs to the Registry in January, then brought 100 or so pages and a new summary in March and submitted even more in May.  At the March hearing, Curlee appeared with her stack of new documents and gave a five-minute speech. Some excerpts:

“In other Strong Schools Strong Communities campaigns around the country, so Strong Schools in Eugene they spent roughly $65,000, um, there was a vote yes for Strong Schools in St. Paul, Minnesota, and with that staff time and everything else that was included in those expenditures topped $100,000 and they collected over $183,000. Um, there were also studies that were conducted in 2002 and staff and funding levels of community organizations and groups were captured based on various sizes and that expense ranged anywhere from a hundred thousand to almost just under a million nine hundred thousand.” “Talking points from other locations around the country, especially with regard to other candidates, seem to be consistent. So things like privatization, outside big money coming from out of state, supposed to be nonpartisan, these are just stepping stones for other things, um, they all claim to be grassroots but then again there seems to be a template that’s being replicated.”

Neither the March nor the May hearing gave us an opportunity to substantively respond to the charges against us, though they allowed Curlee to submit additional false allegations. In fact, in March our attorney was admonished not to “campaign” in our defense, even after Curlee’s speech and documents made false allegations against us. At the hearing last week, our attorney asked if there was going to be “any discussion at all” and he was told no; he could only respond to questions from the Registry. But as they surmised and theorized about our actions, they did not ask him a single question (though at one point he restated an interjection from one of us in the audience).

It’s not really about the money, honey.

The Registry of Election FINANCE might need a new name. The board members ultimately decided that the money part of their enforcement role was really not important.

Patricia Heim: “When we look at all the expenditures, they didn’t meet the requirement, the threshold for reporting and filing with Williamson County. So do they have a reporting obligation? Probably not.”

Heim voted to fine us $5000.

Norma Lester, Chair: “and, um, again we don’t know as far as the campaign filing or whatever but we do know that something is not right… And I do feel that we should take some action if we can within our scope regarding this.”

Lester voted to fine us $5000.  The “or whatever” is priceless.

Tom Lawless, Secretary, regarding the $250 threshold in a quarter: “But to say that they don’t meet a threshold. Now, I just can’t buy that. I’m going back to there’s gotta be some smoke…I’m grappling…”

OK, but before they decided they didn’t care about the money, they tried mightily to bend the space/time continuum to find some.

Tom Lawless proposed a couple novel ways to argue that we had PAC-like contributions or expenditures. He proposed that defending ourselves against the complaint in 2015 could be used as evidence of Curlee’s allegations that we made expenditures in the August 2014 election.   

  1. Volunteering is specifically excluded from what can be considered a ‘contribution’ for an election, but Lawless proposed that the lawyers are making a “contribution” to Williamson Strong by helping us (for free) defend against Curlee’s complaint. So, the lawyers’ volunteer labor in 2015 can be counted as a ‘contribution’ to support or oppose a candidate in an August 2014 election. And that makes Williamson Strong a PAC. So says Lawless. Got it?

  2. Alternately, Lawless proposed the following way to “find” that Williamson Strong had received a contribution from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Ms. Drury’s employer. Here’s how it went: given that Curlee made a (false) claim that SEIU was bankrolling Williamson Strong, and given that fact that the burden of proof apparently is on Williamson Strong in this proceeding (and not Ms. Curlee), Drury troubled her employer to state the relationship of SEIU to Williamson Strong and the school board races (which is that there is NOT a relationship). SEIU provided an affidavit that the organization has given no contributions and has not assigned Drury to any work related to Williamson Strong or the Williamson County School Board election. (Actual comment from DC-based SEIU staff: “Where the $%^&% is Williamson County, Tennessee?”) Lawless saw this as an opportunity to find a “contribution” that could count: “That affidavit was prepared on work time for advocating certain candidates,” he said.

  3. Lawless, who proposed that Williamson Strong be fined $20,000, made it clear in March that he would treat this case differently due to the fact that Susan Drury is employed by a union.

Not to be outdone, Patricia Heim created an interesting story about how the way Jennifer Smith ordered election data was so politically sophisticated that someone else must have been behind the request. Mr. Lawless added that he had “a pretty damn good clue” who that might be. (Did you guess SEIU? Righto!)

Heim: “I find it very interesting that this is a school board election held in August of even-numbered years yet the only comparable election history, voting history requested was August 2012 which would have been for the odd-numbered school board districts, not even-numbered school board districts. So if you’re looking for comparable voter history, you ought to be asking for comparable election ballots.  Um, ya know, she asked for February 2008, March 2012, two presidential preference primary years, you had the assessor on that ballot.  Somebody is looking for voting history by partisan history.  She asked for the May 2014 county primary also some partisan history, the Franklin City and Brentwood City elections.  So I found some interesting desires in choosing which election history they wanted to have on these voters.”


Heim: “…[Y]ou don’t ask for partisan voting history of all districts when only the even numbered districts are running for re-election. So I believe it was a very politically oriented group…”


Lawless: “I was going to say that if you go back to the individual…[inaudible] SEIU and you look at some of the attachments on her and you’ve got a series of that particular group advocating certain candidates.”

[Huh? In Williamson County, TN EVER? NO.]

Heim: “I know that. I’m going to ignore that, but I do think Ms. Smith did not come up with this list of elections that she wanted election history from. Somebody with political campaign experience said you ask for the election history for these voters…” Lawless: “I would say the political director [sic] for the southeast [sic] region of…has a pretty a damn good clue”

First, please look at the form itself. Seriously, take a look.

Ms. Heim insults Jennifer Smith and the very helpful staff at the Williamson County Election Commission. This form was filled out in June 2014 and was for the August elections.

Can you see the complex algorithm of a political mastermind at work in this form? Smith is a sharp cookie and also knows a bargain when she sees one. Note that a list of voters from ALL the districts combined is $75 while a single district is $40. Does Heim think Smith should have ordered six separate districts a la carte to meet Heim’s odd standard here? Smith ordered the six previous elections plus a March Presidential primary (which might include a wider pool of voters?). Why the Brentwood city elections? Hmm?

Heim alleges Smith is on a partisan bent, but she is way out of range here. Perhaps Ms. Heim doesn’t know Williamson County (or Jennifer Smith!), or perhaps she has been talking with Curlee a bit too much, but this school board election was a non-partisan race. Also, all of the incumbents and all of the challengers are Republicans. All of them. The Superintendent that Curlee is on the warpath against is a Republican.

But Heim said she knows this can’t be the work of Jennifer Smith and Lawless says, more or less, AHA! It must be Susan Drury and the union! (Actual text above.) Note that Drury is not an actual person in this story, not an actual mother with children in public schools, not an actual volunteer. No. She is assumed to be a nefarious force with financial backing from a union that has exactly zero members in this county and has zero political history or interest here. The number of leaps here is exhausting to witness; it must really have been something to create.

Registry official: I have done get-out-the-vote phone calling, but when I did it we advocated for specific candidates, so that’s what Williamson Strong did too.  

Heim supplied this analysis for the big finish as evidence that we were working specifically on behalf of certain candidates. We didn’t, but again, since we spent no money on it, couldn’t we have?) But we didn’t. We encouraged people to vote. We made sure they knew when and where to vote. Williamson Strong submitted the script that phone bankers used. These included: “We are not trying to persuade here. Just getting out the vote! And “If the voter says they have voted, scratch their name off the list and thank them. Don’t ask them how they voted.

Heim based her belief on “personal experience.” There is no evidence to support Curlee’s claim, but Heim believes Curlee implicitly.  We and our attorneys were in the room to give any additional testimony or answer any questions.   NOPE.  Not interested.  Heim has phone-banked and urged people to vote for specific candidates so she says we did too.

The law specifically says that get-out-the-vote calls that simply urge people to vote are not contributions.

Transcript from 5/13:

Heim: “If it is strictly get out the vote and I’ve done get out the vote calling and trust me it wasn’t just go to the polls, it was I’d like you to support this candidate so it’s hard for me to believe that – again, willing suspension of disbelief – that they weren’t encouraging voters to vote for certain candidates.” Someone: “Yeah.” Heim: “That’s just my personal experience.” Chair Lester: “So that being the position I think that this board basically supports…So what is the recommendation from the board?” Heim: “Well, the question is there- at this point there would be a civil penalty for failure to file and register as a PAC.” Rawlins: “Yes, failure to register as a PAC and then you could make an argument failure to report…those are class 2, so they would be ten thousand dollars.  Each.  So, yes.” Lawless: “Ten and ten.” Heim: “I don’t want to send a message that I don’t want groups of people to get engaged.  I want engaged voters. I absolutely want engaged voters.” Lawless: “Play by the rules.” Lawless: “I’m going to make the motion that we assess a civil penalty of 10k for each violation” Tom Morton: “I’m going to second that.”

That’s how it went down, folks.

See also:

Registry Q&A” for a primer on the law.

Registry Bias” for a brief recap of the Registry’s May 13 ruling.

About the Registry of Election Finance” for more information about Susan Curlee’s year-long campaign against the public school parents at Williamson Strong.

Innocent!” regarding the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference (TDAGC) finding that Williamson Strong did not violate the law.

When politicians attack! The obsession continues…” which gives an overview of the original sworn complaint and the January hearing.


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