A new state agency appears set to join the ranks of other Tennessee and federal investigators trying to get to the bottom of the campaign finance issues of expelled former lawmaker Jeremy Durham.
The Tennessee Ethics Commission is scheduled to discuss Durham's case on Tuesday, after the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance recommended the broader ethics body take a look at issues surrounding the Franklin Republican.
The registry released a scathing audit of Durham's campaign finances in February, chronicling the ex-lawmaker's use of donor money to buy items like suits, sunglasses and spa products, all of which could be illegal purchases. In total, the audit found at least 690 violations, setting up a possible, though unlikely, fine in the range of $7 million.
While reviewing the audit, registry members referred the findings to the commission for its own inquiry. The commission and registry share the same executive director, Drew Rawlins, but the commission's purview is a bit broader than the registry, which focuses more on the campaign finances of public officials and political action committees. The commission was created in 2006 to generally promote and ensure ethical conduct by public officials, including how they use their campaign funds.
Although the commission, like the registry, has the power to levy fines, the body doesn't have much enforcement power. It may issue advisory opinions on questions of ethics, but has released only one since 2009.
If the commission determines Durham used his personal office for private gain — as is alleged in the registry's audit — state law requires the commission to not issue any fines but rather report those findings to the Ethics Committee within the state House of Representatives.
A special House committee was inundated with work last year amidst Durham's multiple scandals. After a USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee investigation revealed late-night, lewd text messages from Durham to several women, House Speaker Beth Harwell created the committee to investigate Durham's actions. Working with the committee, the Tennessee attorney general found Durham had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with at least 22 women.
Durham denies the financial and sexual allegations. He has until May 1 to send the registry a response to the campaign finance audit. Durham's attorney Peter Strianse previously told reporters the audit includes inaccuracies, but didn't elaborate.
A federal criminal probe into Durham, which subpoenas show includes an investigation into possible wire fraud, mail fraud and bribery, is ongoing.
The commission's meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. CT.
Reach Dave Boucher at email@example.com, 615-259-8892 and on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.