Evicted from House, Staples Can't Stop Spending Campaign Funds

An October eviction plus $44,000 in expenses over six months may equal an audit

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State Rep. Rick Staples (D-Knoxville) might not reside in his district. It’s not clear where he lives — he wouldn’t tell me — but one thing is certain: Staples does not live at 112 Holston Court in East Knoxville.

That’s the address Staples put down as his residence when he picked up a petition from the Knox County Election Commission last week to run for re-election in House District 15. It’s also the address listed on his campaign finance filings. But Staples was evicted from the four-bedroom, three-bath home on Oct. 15, 2019, for non-payment of rent. Staples’ former landlords declined to comment, but legal proceedings filed in Knox County show that Staples owes $8,875 to QB Realty Team, plus court costs. A bank levy was issued Nov. 5 in an attempt to get partial payment, and in January they unsuccessfully attempted to serve Staples in Nashville to garnish his legislative wages.

Yet the eviction hasn’t stopped Staples from blowing through some $44,439 since last July. There’s just one problem — all that money came out of Staples’ campaign account, and a full breakdown of his spending raises numerous questions as to how many were legitimate expenses. If you go back further to when Staples took office in late 2016, there are even more questionable charges — expenses far out of line with other legislators, especially as Staples had no opponent in either the primary or general election in 2018.

Staples, to be clear, denies any wrongdoing.

“We’re comfortable with what’s listed. I have an excellent treasurer,” Staples said last night, expressing great surprise at the questions.

Staples also denied that financial problems contributed to his eviction, or that he was using his campaign finance account for personal spending.

“There were issues with the upkeep of the home,” Staples said. He declined to go into specifics with me, but he later told the Knoxville News Sentinel that the house had “fungus.” (The house is currently under contract to a new buyer; QB Realty’s Facebook page says they are a couple who specialize in flipping houses.) Staples said that my reporting on his eviction was “character assassination” and asked who had put me up to this. (The answer is no one. I just got a tip.)

“I’ve never been a nefarious or shady individual!” Staples told me, repeatedly. (The same quote, verbatim, was given to the KNS.)

But Staples’ campaign spending appears to be not quite on the up-and-up. There are three trips for “sports betting research” in the months after the Staples-sponsored legislation to legalize limited gambling on sports passed last spring. Staples said a $614 stay at the W Hotel in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta last June was because “sports betting vendors wanted to meet me.” He declined to name any of the vendors, and Georgia does not have a legalized gambling industry (other than the state lottery). A $946 stay at the Hard Rock Cafe resort and casino in Las Vegas last July, with an additional $693 in food, beverage and entertainment charges, was for the same purpose, Staples said. So was an early January jaunt to Jacksonville, with $285 in hotel costs at the Omni Hotel and $163.50 in dining expenses.

The Senate sponsor of the legislation, state Sen. Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville), has taken no such trips, either before or after the legislation passed. Staples is not on the Sports Wagering Advisory Council, which will issue guidance to the Tennessee Lottery Corporation as it sets up sports betting, so it’s unclear why vendors would be interested in meeting with Staples after the legislation had been signed into law. Staples would not elaborate, but insisted the three trips were part of his legislative duties.

But it is clear that Staples has been repeatedly double- dipping since 2017 — that is, charging airfare, hotel rooms, food, drinks, gas and Lyft rides to his campaign account while either receiving a per diem and mileage expenses for legislative work in Nashville or being reimbursed for travel to a conference. This is prohibited. Cross-checking his campaign finance reports with legislative per diem and travel reports appears to show 107 itemized charges totaling $9,785.76 for which he seems to have been reimbursed. (This tally does not include December or early January, during which Staples has charges for several trips to Nashville. The state has not yet posted those reimbursements online, and they declined to scan and email them to me yesterday.)

In that total, there are two hotel room charges, one for $341 at the Cambria Hotel downtown and one for $100.47 at the La Quinta Inn on Sidco Drive, on the same day, Oct. 24, 2018. Staples was paid a $960 per diem from state for the same Oct. 23 - 26 Nashville trip. Another Nashville trip from July 29 - 31, 2019, received a $720 per diem. However, during that same time period Staples has a $326.16 charge at the Hotel Indigo in Memphis, along with $229 in Memphis dining charges. It’s entirely possible the trip was legislative business and he simply reported the wrong city, but it also raises the question as to why he would only report and be reimbursed for mileage from Knoxville to Nashville.

“I’ve never used my card or my campaign funds in session,” Staples said. I said that his campaign finance filings repeatedly show the opposite. “They’re legitimate for whatever was filed,” Staples replied, denying that he had done anything wrong. When I specifically pointed out that he had received a $1,200 per diem for the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) annual conference in Nashville last August yet had also spent $1,124.47 in campaign funds at the Omni, where the conference was held, Staples said again that his finances were in order.

But if Staples’ finances were actually in order, it seems unlikely he would have spent $29,322 in campaign funds on food and drinks in a three-year period. (Over $11,000 of those charges are unitemized.) Staples said all the expenses were campaign-related or in the course of his legislative duties.

“I have a lot of meetings,” Staples said. “I’ve sponsored a lot of large lunches.”

While that is almost certainly true, many of the charges are too small to be anything but one person eating or drinking. There are pricey meals at Nashville steakhouses Morton’s and STK, sure, but there are meals at Waffle House, McDonald’s, Cracker Barrel, and 24 meals at Knoxville soul food restaurant Jackie’s Dream totaling $2,394.76. And then there’s the drinking — multiple charges (including two over $100) at Blend Bar, a Nashville cigar bar; a dozen charges at the Over Under Bar in the lobby of the Clarion Hotel next to Nissan Stadium; $1,407 in charges at Knoxville’s Merchants of Beer; and additional charges at four different breweries in Knoxville.

But it’s not just dining expenses that seem extravagant. Staples has spent $1,899 at Petree’s Flowers, ostensibly for “office expenses” or “professional services.” He charged over $500 to Lyft in just the last six months. He has charged hotel stays in Knoxville at least three times. There are unexplained trips to Johnson City and Ames, Iowa, and two stays at a Holiday Inn near the Atlanta airport. There are two car rentals in Knoxville totaling over $700. There is $10,488 in spending on “office supplies.” This number includes part of the Petree’s amount, along with an additional $381 at two other florists; $153 at a Nashville jeweler; $411 at Mast General Store in Knoxville (which mostly sells clothing and shoes); and almost $140 at U-Haul.

Staples has also used campaign funds to purchase tickets for a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game, in conjunction with the 2018 NCSL conference, and tickets for a November 2019 Memphis Grizzlies game, in conjunction with a legislative retreat in Memphis. There’s also a $107 ticket charge to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, on July 15 during Staples’ trip to the city, the same day that UNLV hosted the NBA’s summer league championship game. In most cases, campaign funds can only be used to purchase tickets for sporting, entertainment or charity events if they are given to someone else. In his most recent filing, Staples lists an in-kind donation from the Tennessee Titans for $756 in tickets; if he used any ticket to go to an NFL game himself, that would be impermissible.

As I asked Staples about his spending, he repeatedly stressed all that he had done for his community.

“Have you added up how much I’ve donated? I am committed to helping people in East Knoxville,” Staples said.

And it’s true, Staples has donated a lot of money since he’s been in office, even more than he’s spent on food and drinks. But there are questions about some of those donations, too. Staples has spent $36,641 on “donations” and “contributions” (itemized and not), and $9,176 on “sponsorships” since taking office. Of the donations, $1,915 went to the Knox County Democratic Party (in part for tickets to the annual Truman Day fundraiser), and another $250 was given to the Tennessee Democratic Party. Unlike the majority of legislators with sizable money in the bank, Staples does not appear to have ever donated to any candidates in competitive races or to the House Democratic Caucus PAC. (There are $390 in donations via ActBlue but no candidate is specified, so it’s unclear if those were for a Tennessee or a national race.)

Most of Staples’ donations have gone to churches and non-profits in Knoxville. If the donations were to attend a gala for the non-profit, it could be a questionable use of funds, but otherwise such donations are permitted. But there are two donations totaling $1,300 to a man named Larry Thompson — donations to an individual are not permitted — and there are multiple charges at Walmart and Sam’s Club (and one at a Holiday Inn in Knoxville) listed as donations or sponsorships. It’s possible the items are mislabeled, or it’s possible Staples donated what he purchased to a legitimate non-profit, but it’s unusual accounting in either case. (There are also a couple hundred dollars of “Christmas gifts to needy families,” listed separately.)

The most curious donation, however, is the $1,525 given to Turning Headz Beauty Explosion, a Knoxville hair salon. State law explicitly prohibits candidates from using campaign funds for “payments for grooming or enhancing one’s personal appearance unrelated to campaign activities,” and a hair salon is not a non-profit or otherwise a charitable organization. When I asked Staples about the donations to Turning Headz, he got incredibly angry and ended the phone call.

“A person can break down anything and make it seem like what it’s not,” Staples said before going on to accuse me of attempting to smear his reputation with false allegations.

But staff at the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance agreed that Staples’ spending does raise questions for them, and they plan to mail a letter seeking more information from him regarding certain expenses. (They also noted that such a letter is regularly sent out to legislators reporting out-of-state travel expenses.) Whether Staples’ account will end up audited is up to the Registry itself. Normally action is only taken if a sworn complaint is filed, but in recent months the board has voted to audit the accounts of Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin) and former Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) on its own after news reports documenting irregularities. The registry’s meeting is March 11, and no agenda is set as of today.

Meanwhile, Staples says that when he turns in his petition to run in August primary, he will have a different East Knoxville address on it. Despite being repeatedly pressed, he wouldn’t say where that would be or if he even has an address at all, and he gave similarly evasive answers to the KNS. Staples would only say that he’s mostly living in Nashville right now because the legislature is in session and he has family there, and that he only drives back to Knoxville for events in his district.

So he’s working over the weekends? I asked, as Cordell Hull is usually empty on Saturdays and Sundays, in or out of session.

“At times I do. Because I’m carrying really heavy legislation right now that I have to work on over the weekend,” Staples said.

The full reports of Staples’ spending can be found in a spreadsheet I compiled if you want to browse the expenses yourself. All data was dowloaded and imported without change from TREF files.

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