Dozens of Tennessee lawmakers are members of their local rotary clubs, chambers of commerce and similar organizations.
Most state senators and representatives participate in these organizations, which offer access to community members that may translate into political support and personal success, by paying their membership dues with campaign funds.
A USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee analysis of hundreds of reports and thousands of expenses found prominent elected officials spent $50,000 since 2009 in campaign funds on personal memberships to The Standard Club, a private club in Nashville. But there are dozens of other groups lawmakers belong to, and those membership dues are paid for with campaign funds.
The analysis found in 2016 alone, 64 representatives and 21 senators spent more than $75,000 in donor money to pay for memberships into civic, and some private, organizations, including $12,000 for dues at The Standard Club. The 85 lawmakers in the analysis represent roughly 65 percent of all current state legislators.
While the majority joined rotary clubs, chambers of commerce or Kiwanis clubs, some lawmakers paid dues so they could be members to shop on Amazon or at Sam’s Club or have access to a premium version of LinkedIn. Others paid for their memberships in the National Rifle Association or the American Legislative Exchange Council, traditionally conservative organizations that offer benefits for members. A few joined other private clubs similar to The Standard.
Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, spent $1,970 last year on dues for the Crescent Club, a private club in Memphis. Sen. Reggie Tate, D-Memphis, spent $360 so he could be a member of the Nashville City Club, a private downtown club with panoramic views of the capital city.
Rep. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, paid her sorority dues with campaign money. She also used campaign funds to pay for a host of other organizations, including the League of Women Voters and the National Council of Negro Women.
“Being a part of these organizations gives me a chance to interact with people that I represent on a first-hand basis. They give me their input on legislation, problems that need to be addressed in their communities and the effectiveness of state government,” she said, calling the various membership payments, including to her sorority, legitimate uses of campaign funds.
White and Tate did not respond to requests for comment through spokesmen.
Other lawmakers who used campaign donations to pay for "dues and memberships" include:
- Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, spent $1,035 on LinkedIn.
- Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, paid $179 to Mylife, a company that compiles background information on individuals.
- Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna, used $108 for a membership to Amazon, the online shopping company.
- Rep. Tilman Goins, R-Morristown, made two payments totaling $80 for membership to the Fraternal Order of Police.
- Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, spent $33 on a Sam's Club membership.
Holt said he uses his membership to shop for items needed at larger campaign events. Asked if Holt, a father of five, ever uses the membership for his personal membership, he said it's rare.
"I wouldn’t say like, never, but that (store is) in Jackson, so we don’t shop in Jackson," said Holt, who lives in Dresden, more than a one hour drive from Jackson. "We just prefer Walmart."
House GOP spokesman Doug Kufner said expenditures are made with donations from people who trust their lawmakers and are included in public reports. It's the same statement Kufner provided to previous questions that arose in this analysis.
There are loopholes and contradictions in the law that allow for some leeway on how lawmakers may pay dues with campaign funds.
State law — Tennessee Code Annotated 2-10-114-B-(2)-f — bans paying dues or fees for country clubs, health clubs or recreational clubs “unless they are part of a specific fundraising event that takes place on the organization’s premise.”
But TCA 2-10-114-A-(7) says “membership fees” may be an allowable use of campaign funds. In general, lawmakers are not allowed to use campaign funds for personal purposes. Some ethics experts say any lawmaker who owns or runs a business would personally benefit by being a member of the local chamber of commerce, for example.
Tennessee law says purchases may be paid for with campaign funds, as long they are an “ordinary and necessary expense incurred in connection with the office of the officeholder.”
A 2005 opinion from the Tennessee attorney general notes that “we have not been able to find any state or federal court decision defining what constitutes ‘ordinary and necessary expenses’ of an officeholder.”
The recent audit of ousted lawmaker Jeremy Durham’s campaign finances offers a glimpse into how at least one state probe views such expenses.
The inquiry, which found Durham may have violated state law 690 times, specifically mentions membership dues for the Fairview Lions Club. The audit states Durham’s own membership is allowable but not that of his wife. The report doesn’t elaborate as to why such expenditures are allowed.
It’s a question states across the nation have grappled with. A 2016 expose in the Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier found local lawmakers spending thousands of campaign dollars on dues for private clubs. A state ethics commission subsequently banned such practices.
In Kentucky, state law bans “payment of dues to professional, civic, or other organizations to which the individual belongs or desires to join.”
However, many other states allow lawmakers to pay their way into organizations using donor money.
In Massachusetts, lawmakers are allowed to pay for memberships into organizations as long as they are attempting to enhance their political futures. Nebraska allows such payments, but the lawmaker must join the organization only for political, not personal, reasons.
Washington state bans paying dues and fees for social, civic, fraternal or professional organizations “unless the expenditure occurs during an election year and membership is required to gain access to the organization's mailing list for campaign purposes or other facilities for the candidate's campaign.”
Iowa bans lawmakers using campaign funds to join “professional organizations,” but they can use them to join “service organizations” so long as they’re joining “solely for the purpose of enhancing the candidacy.”
At the federal level, lawmakers can’t use donations to pay for dues at a health care facility or a country club, but they “may use campaign funds to pay for a membership in a civic or community group in his or her district in order to maintain political contacts with constituents or the business community,” according to the Federal Election Commission. The law is otherwise vague as to what may qualify as a “political organization” where membership dues would be allowed.