TNDP Audit Shows Sloppy Bookkeeping

FEC finds issues with accounting during 2016 election cycle

On Monday afternoon, the Federal Election Commission released an audit of the Tennessee Democratic Party’s finances during 2015 and 2016, and the results show incredibly sloppy bookkeeping. The party didn’t track when its employees were working on federal campaigns (to the tune of over $400,000) and it took in over $166,000 in excess of federal campaign contribution limits (which it then mostly transferred to its non-federal account instead of issuing refunds). It also understated receipts and disbursements by $148,395 and $147,409, respectively, in 2015, and it understated receipts by $1,362,191 and disbursements by $1,377,720 on the original reports filed over the two-year period.

At this time, the FEC is not taking action or issuing fines, although it could choose to do so in the future. And according to people well versed in the incredibly complex federal election finance rules for state parties, the audit doesn’t necessarily show signs of intentional malfeasance by party chair Mary Mancini or her staff, just bad accounting and lazy paperwork. Next Level Partners, the company to which the party outsourced federal compliance and accounting during those years, has recently been dinged for similar sloppy work with several other state parties, including the Arkansas Democratic Party. TNDP is no longer using Next Level. Wade Munday, who was the TNDP treasurer from January 2013 until February 2017, declined to comment.

But the audit comes at a possibly critical time for Mancini, as her opponents on the TNDP State Executive Committee gear up for a ouster push ahead of their Oct. 19 quarterly meeting — even though everyone admits that there were financial issues pre-dating Mancini’s tenure.

“I consider myself friends with Mary. She’s a good person and a fine person, but she’s simply not capable to lead us into 2020,” said District 17 member Carol Brown Andrews of Wilson County. “That said, I think the fault lies with us. We are duly elected officials, and we have failed on the job. Did all of this start with Mary? No.”

The Executive Committee knew that the FEC was conducting an audit, but the members to whom I’ve talked say they were unaware it would be released this week. Nashville’s District 19 member Charlie Clark said his call for Mancini to resign over the weekend was not timed to knowledge of the audit’s release. Andrews, who publicly joined Clark’s call for resignation via a tweet on Sunday, also said she didn’t know it was coming this week.

According to several party members across the state, dissent is bubbling up within many county parties too, although some of that has been building for months. Andrews said one of the reasons she did not vote in January to reelect Mancini for a third term was that all six county party chairs in her district “to a person told me not to support Mary.”

But District 7 member Mark Harmon of Knoxville said he thinks the criticism coming from Andrews, Clark and others about the party’s engagement in rural counties is wrong.

“I think it does not hold up to close inspection,” Harmon said. “I think people have been quibbling and using incomplete arguments.”

Harmon said that in the past year or two of Mancini’s tenure, “fundraising is up, the donor base is up, and we picked up a seat in the legislature. Mary’s been doing her job.”

But Johnson City’s District 3 member Debbie Harley-McClaskey said Harmon and other Mancini supporters simply have a hard time adjusting to change.

“It is important to have new leadership in place to make forward progress and a strategy to bring the party together for 2020,” said Harley-McClaskey, who also did not vote for Mancini in January. “A change in leadership may not be expected [mid-cycle], but the party is not where we think we should be.”

Under party bylaws, Mancini or any other officer “may be removed from office for malfeasance or incapacity by a majority vote of the total Committee membership.” But would a poor audit from two election cycles ago count as malfeasance, especially if part of the blame either lies with or can be blamed on an outside vendor no longer in business with the party? And would that really get over half of the executive committee to take action against Mancini when 2020 is unlikely to turn Tennessee any more blue? Especially given that similar complaints in 2018 did little to stop Mancini’s landslide reelection this year?

The TNDP declined to send me a statement about the audit. They also, per the audit itself, declined to say much of anything to the FEC either, besides amending several reports. As to whether party member think the audit is bad enough to demand a full external and independent audit of both federal and state party spending under Mancini’s tenure, as Clark wants — well, stay tuned.

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