Towns bashes state finance registry after it fines Memphis representatives

By Updated: November 26, 2018 4:43 PM CT | Published: November 26, 2018 2:04 PM CT

The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance has assessed fines against three Memphis legislators for failing to file campaign finance reports, eliciting a blistering response from state Rep. Joe Towns, who contends the body is “out of control.”

Registry members voted recently to fine Towns, a District 84 Democrat from Memphis, a total of $20,000 in two $10,000 civil penalties for failure to make financial reports in the second-quarter and pre-primary periods, according to Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance.

Towns already had outstanding penalties of $10,000 for late filing of a mid-year 2017 report and $5,000 for late filing of an appointment of treasurer form, according to Rawlins. Since being elected in 1996, Towns has been fined a total of $100,000 and several years ago was penalized $35,000 for a single violation, according to reports.

The registry also fined incoming freshmen Reps. London Lamar of District 91 and Jesse Chism of District 85, both Memphis Democrats, $8,175 and $5,000, respectively, for filing reports late, the Tennessee Journal reports.

“They’re trying to make themselves more important,” Towns said, blaming Rawlins specifically since he is in leadership. “They’re out of control. They’re fining me. Uncle Sam, the IRS, doesn’t fine people like that for being late. Are you kidding me? They have lost their minds; they’ve lost their damn minds.”

The registry delayed action on Memphis Democratic Rep. G.A. Hardaway of District 93 for not filing second-quarter and pre-primary reports. Hardaway was to go before the registry and explain why he failed to file on time.

Hardaway previously told The Daily Memphian he ran into computer problems trying to file the reports and didn’t turn them in on time. He took responsibility for the situation and said he has “no excuses,” saying he would take care of the filings a month ago.

Towns acknowledged being late on his filings and admitted having the problem several times over the years.

“Late is not a sin. And it damn sure ain’t worth no $10,000,” Towns said. “And I’m the first one to tell you I’ll be late with all the stuff many of us do. It’s like running a small business. Yes, I am. But it’s always done. But by the same token, he’s (Rawlins) out of control. We need new leadership over there. It’s time for him to go. I say it’s time for him to go.”

Towns also complained that steps need to be taken to reduce the penalties, when he can be fined $15,000 for a job that barely pays more than $15,000. Legislators make around $20,000 annually for the part-time position.

“I really think they need to be looked into. They’ve gone too far. It makes no sense,” Towns said. “But I have to get it done and I will get it done.”

Towns added that fining incoming legislators is too harsh a penalty.

Chism had no comment about the matter. Lamar said she was unclear about the deadlines but has since turned in all of her paperwork. She wasn’t certain whether she would still have to pay the fine.

The six-member registry is appointed, two each by the governor, House and Senate and split between Democratic and Republican appointees.

Asked about Towns’ criticism, Rawlins said the registry’s goal is for all campaign financial disclosure reports to be filed by the deadlines.

“Our office makes every effort to assist every filer in filing the reports on time,” he said in an email response. “The purpose of campaign financial disclosure reports are to make campaign finance information available to the public in a timely manner.”

Rawlins said as executive director of the Registry of Election Finance, he doesn’t vote or make recommendations on the amount of civil penalties assessed. He presents information on all failures to file and late filings, he said, and the registry votes on civil penalties, based on state laws.

“Before voting, registry members take into account past matters before the registry, how late the report has been filed (if it has been filed) and whether the person responded to explain the late filing,” he said in the email.

When reports aren’t filed within 35 days of a certified late notice, the registry has authority to assess civil penalties up to $10,000, he pointed out.

In Towns’ latest case before the registry, the representative has not filed the reports and has numerous previous failures to file and hasn’t explained those cases either, Rawlins said.

Towns, who was unopposed in the Nov. 6 general election, made his latest filing in April 2018 when he reported having $32,851 in his account. He had outstanding loans totaling $26,635, according to the state online campaign finance site.

Chism, who also was unopposed in the recent general election, filed a report on Oct. 31 showing donations of $1,000 and loans of more than $2,000, including two self-endorsed totaling more than $1,100. He has a balance of $16 in his account.

Lamar, also unopposed, filed a report Nov. 18 showing she had a negative balance of $1,500 before receiving $2,760 in campaign contributions and spending $600. She has a balance of $592, the report shows.


Joe Towns London Lamar Jesse Chism G.A. Hardaway Drew Rawlins
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.

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