Sens. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, and Rep. Jay Reedy, R-Erin, used campaign money to pay for passports.
The trio spent $621 on those passports in 2016, according to the findings of an ongoing USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee analysis of how lawmakers use their campaign coffers. Reedy paid $110; Bell spent $140 and Ketron used $371 in donor money to cover the cost of the passports.
The amount of money in question pales in comparison to other expenses uncovered in the analysis. But any use of campaign money needs to pass a test in order to be considered legitimate, said Brendan Fischer, the federal and FEC reform program director with the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group
If someone would likely make such a purchase regardless of being a lawmaker, then it may be prohibited, he said.
“Is this an expense that would exist irrespective of the campaign or as an officeholder? Passport would probably fall in (that category),” Fischer said.
Bell said he needed a passport to go on an “economic exchange trip” to Taiwan with legislators from other states. The trip was hosted and paid for by a consul general’s office in Atlanta, he said.
Bell defended the passport purchase because he was “doing legislative business."
Ketron, who also used campaign funds last year to pay for car washes, SiriusXM Radio and basketball tickets, said the cost of his passport included an additional charge to expedite his renewal due to last-minute plans to go to China with the president of Middle Tennessee State University. He said his cancer treatments prevented him from going on the trip.
Reedy said he also had the chance to go to China, but the trip did not occur. Prior to purchasing the passport Reedy said he contacted Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, who told him it was an allowable expense provided it was for legislative purposes.
Reedy and Ketron said they have not used their passports, which are valid for 10 years, since obtaining them. Bell said he hasn’t used it since traveling to Taiwan.