Did Staples Spend Campaign Funds on his Wedding?

Also: Two mysterious "donations" are likely partial rent payments

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There are dozens (or thousands, if you want to use the monetary value) of questions about the campaign finance spending by state Rep. Rick Staples (D-Knoxville), as I reported earlier this week. But since I published my story, I’ve discovered a new wrinkle: It appears very likely Staples used campaign funds to pay for part of his wedding and honeymoon last fall. It also seems probable that two odd “donations” to a man named Larry Thompson in 2017 were for household rent. All of this spending, if verified in an audit, would be blatantly in violation of state law.

For as long as I’ve reported on Staples — which goes back to 2013, when he first ran unsuccessfully for Knoxville City Council — there have been questions about his finances. In 2016, a warrant for his arrest was issued when he failed to show up in court over a case involving unpaid child support. The year prior, he told the court he was not making payments because he was indigent and only making $400 a month.

During those same seven years, Staples had been unmarried. His official page on the legislative website even says he is “single.” So when the Knoxville News Sentinel said that Staples had been evicted from the house he shared with his wife, I was surprised to see that he had gotten married. In the course of searching for more information about his wife, Lateesha Fritts, I found the couple’s wedding website. And that led me to review Staples’ campaign expenses once more.

What I found is several expenses that seem probably tied to Staples and Fritts’ Oct. 3, 2019, wedding and honeymoon. On Oct. 1, Staples paid one of his most-frequented Knoxville restaurants, Jackie’s Dream, $1,201.75. Then, on Oct. 7, there’s a stay in the Holiday Inn at the Atlanta airport for $177.47. There’s a second stay at the same hotel on Oct. 10, for $130.35. On those same dates there are two $60 charges to Spirit Airlines — likely baggage fees. There’s also a $410 car rental fee in Knoxville on Oct. 10. It seems likely Staples used campaign funds to cater his wedding, then rented a car to drive to Atlanta with his bride, staying in a hotel the night before their flight and the night they returned. Facebook and Instagram posts on Staples and Fritts’ personal pages show them in Jamaica on Oct. 9.

Five days after their return from tropical romance, Staples was evicted from his home for non-payment of rent, owing $8,875, plus court costs. (Which are, to date, still unpaid.)

Speaking of rent, I learned that Staples used to live at 1970 Locarno Drive, in a townhouse owned by one Lawrence Thompson. That address is the one Staples used when he ran for office in 2018. In January 2018, Staples made a $350 “donation” to Larry Thompson of 1968 Locarno Drive, and in June he made a $950 donation to the same person at the same address. Knox County property records don’t show any residence at 1968 Locarno, but Thompson owns the townhomes at both 1966 and 1970 Locarno. It’s possible Staples gave Thompson money for something related to a charity, although it still seems like a violation of campaign finance law. But it’s also very possible Staples gave Thompson campaign finance funds to help cover rent, which is absolutely prohibited.

Staples has posted on Facebook that my and the KNS’s reporting on his eviction and spending is an “attack” on his “integrity.” But he has claimed “character assassination” every time he’s been accused of wrongdoing, including last year when he was found to have violated the legislature’s sexual harassment policy. (And if you think he was unfairly targeted over that, talk to some Knoxville women who have had him slide into their DMs.)

Staples has one primary challenger so far, political newcomer Matthew Park. But as a young, white and openly gay candidate, Park faces a challenging race in a district with a large African-American population. But it’s possible Staples’ turmoil will lead to one or more other candidates jumping in, as the deadline for entering the primary is still six weeks away.

UPDATE, 6:30 p.m. ET: The Staples and Fritts wedding website has apparently been deleted, but you can still find the happy couple’s registry here. And below is a screenshot with the wedding details, if you are just now seeing this.

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