Who's Watching the PACS?

Magazine cover reading "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 15 No. 3/4, "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards." Find more from that issue here.

In response to the growing influence of state-level political action committees (PACs), the Nashville Banner investigated their activities in the Tennessee legislature. Reporters examined thousands of campaign transactions by several hundred PACs and more than 100 lawmakers. The 12-part series ran August 19-22, 25, 30, September 16, 23, 1986 and February 16-19, 1987. 


Nashville — Brake repairs, a tape recorder, truck rentals, gasoline, medical bills, and thousands of dollars in travel expenses are among the strange uses some state legislators found for their campaign money last year. The Nashville Banner examined the disclosure documents for 209 candidates for legislative seats in 1986 and found: 

♦ State election laws are so lax that no one is keeping track of the giving and spending, resulting in an unrestrained free-for-all involving millions of dollars. A total of $3.5 million was given to Tennessee legislative candidates last year, with about one-third of that total easily traceable to political action committees (PACs) — special interests that pool their money and give contributions to candidates. 

♦ Those PACs, inspired by a bare-knuckled legislative brawl over the state's liability insurance laws, have been handing out money at a record pace. The Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association, which doled out $27,000 in 1983-84, led all special interests in spending by putting $95,415 into legislative races during 1986 alone as it tried to compete with insurance firms, hospitals, and others in the spending war. 

♦ Because state disclosure laws are fuzzy, some legislators simply state on their disclosures that they have spent their money for "campaign expenses" or "travel." Others leave a trail of unusual expenditures. For instance: 

♦ Rep. Harold Love (D-Nashville) listed expenses of $142.99, $91.96, and $17.00 for "medical treatment" in some of his disclosure forms. Love said if his campaign workers are sick or injured — even in a non-campaign activity — he pays the bills from his election till. 

♦ Guy Cain, another newly elected Democrat representative from Memphis, leased a car for $1,000 in Mississippi, charging the expense to his campaign. 

♦ Sen. John Ford, a Memphis Democrat who surpasses all his colleagues in collecting money from special interests, said in his primary election disclosure that he had used $18,941 in campaign funds for "personal expenses." Ford's disclosure included payments of $3,950 to Goldsmith's Department Store for video equipment and furniture, $3,915 to Bradford's furniture, $2,490 to General Motors Acceptance Corp., $955 to Auto Rama Inc. for "auto expenses," $730 to Bud Davis Cadillac, $709 to a Mercedes Benz dealership, and $289 to Mobil Oil. Ford, chair of the Senate General Welfare Committee and brother of U.S. Rep. Harold Ford (D-Memphis), even listed himself among "campaign workers" and paid himself $500 for working for his own re-election effort. He was unopposed in both the primary and general elections. 

♦ Some legislators rely very heavily on special interests for their funding. Depending on PACs for more than 70 percent of their funds in 1986 were Rep. Zane Whitson (R-Unicoi), Rep. Tom Wheeler (D-Clinton), and former Rep. Harper Brewer (D-Memphis), as well as Senators Curtis Person (R-Memphis) and Jim Lewis (D-South Pittsburg). Legislators who were unopposed in 1986 still managed to attract $132,325 in contributions from special interests, records show. 


A dozen candidates haven't filed the proper disclosure forms from the 1986 general elections, some hopefuls took what appear to be illegal corporate contributions, and some political action committees don't report their activities. 

But no one is doing anything about it. 

"The problem is there is no firm mechanism for enforcement," state Attorney General Mike Cody said. 'There is no person or agency assigned to make an investigation." 

Rows of filing cabinets in the James K. Polk Building house the political disclosure documents of Tennessee candidates. It's a time-consuming task to pore over the hundreds of documents detailing thousands of contributions. The constant shifting of money from one PAC to another makes tracing funds an even tougher job. But Cody is certain that if the state legislature would create an overseer, plenty of problems would come to light. 

The Nashville Banner found these irregularities: 

♦ Several PACs haven't filed their required January disclosures, and a few active PACs haven't filed a disclosure for years. The Memphis-based Federal Express Corp., for example, hasn't filed a required January disclosure. 

♦ Corporations give what appear to be direct, illegal contributions to both PACs and candidates. Unsuccessful state senate candidate Harold Lingerfelt of Elizabeth, for instance, listed a contribution from Nick Carter's Aircraft Engineering, and Sen. Bill Owen (D-Knoxville) listed a contribution from a trucking firm. 

♦ There is no solid filing system for PAC disclosures, resulting in plenty of confusion. For instance, half of the Tennessee Realtors' 1986 PAC disclosures are filed under "R" for realtors, while the other half are filed under "T" for Tennessee. 

♦ Additional confusion is generated by the fact that the state disclosure laws and forms are different from those on the federal level. As a result, PACs like the ones for Third National Bank and the Tennessee Medical Association filed federal disclosure forms for state legislative races. 

♦ As of February 17, 12 candidates for the legislature in 1986 had not filed some or all of the required disclosure documents for their races. 

Though modem state disclosure laws went into effect in 1980, there has been only one occasion on which the state attorney general took formal action against a candidate. That was in 1980, when then-Attorney General William Leech filed a Chancery Court complaint against then-state Rep. Dedrick "Teddy" Withers, who later paid a monetary settlement. A PAC has never been prosecuted or sued for misconduct. 



Caucuses Filter PAC Dollars 


Pick up a Tennessee legislator's financial disclosure statement, and chances are it'll list contributors such as the "House-Senate Democratic Caucus" and the "House Republican Caucus." 

The names of these entities suggest they are bankrolled by the party faithful. But the caucus organizations are actually large bank accounts stuffed with special interest money and used in part to help incumbent lawmakers beat members of their own party. The caucuses and their campaign finance tactics comprise one little-known aspect of PACs. 

♦ The House Republican Caucus, the Senate Republican Caucus, and the House-Senate Democratic Caucus are three key entities. Each has an annual fundraiser aimed at filling the tills. 

♦ Two other funds — the House Democratic Caucus and the Senate Democratic Caucus — operate chiefly with funds sent to them by the House-Senate Democratic Caucus. The Senate Democratic Caucus hasn't been very active this year because its overseer, Sen. Bob Rochelle of Lebanon, was in the doghouse with some of his more partisan colleagues. The Democrats practically shut his fund down as a retaliatory measure and began drawing checks directly from the House-Senate Democratic Caucus. 

♦ A sixth PAC fund, controlled by the state's three Constitutional officers, also gives money to legislators, who ultimately determine whether to re-elect the trio. That PAC — called the Tennessee Legislative Fund — exists on money given to it by special-interest PACs and numerous small donations. Administered by Secretary of State Gentry Crowell, Treasurer Harlan Mathews, and Comptroller William Snodgrass, the fund even took $2,000 last year from the House-Senate Democratic Caucus, then turned around and paid it out to Democratic candidates. 

The lawmakers' PACs carry "Republican" and "Democratic" labels, but their activities include trying to stifle challengers from within their own parties, according to campaign disclosure records through July 28. 

A total of $27,000 was given by the House-Senate Democratic Caucus to the campaigns of Rochelle, Bill Richardson of Columbia, Bill Owen of Knoxville, Avon Williams of Nashville, Jim Lewis of South Pittsburg, Tommy Burks of Monterey, and Frank Lashlee of Camden. All of these Democrats had opposition from within their own party and all won with the help of caucus money. 

A total of $10,500 was doled out by the House Democratic Caucus to 14 different Democrats who were challenged in the primary. Another $2,114 was given by the House Republican Caucus to five candidates with Republican opponents. 

— Mike Pigott and Bruce Dobie