Melissa Harrell and Avent Lane
The Democratic candidate for Circuit Court clerk is challenging the legitimacy of his Republican foe’s candidacy over an outstanding $30,000 bond she has with the Circuit Court clerk’s office.
State law requires that Melissa Harrell hold no direct or indirect ties with her business, AAAA Bonding, if she is elected to office. But her opponent, Avent Lane, says the matter doesn’t stop there.
Lane contends that state law governing eligibility to seek office could disqualify Harrell from the election on two counts. It states: 1) Those who have a “judgment unpaid” to the nation, state or county are ineligible; and 2) Those “who are defaulters to the treasury at the time of the election” are ineligible, “and the election of any such person shall be void.”
The State Election Commission, though, contends that Election Day – Aug. 7 – is the critical point, even though early voting ends Saturday, and that the matter is not an election commission issue.
“If the voters choose the person to win the office, a court is the proper authority to determine if the person is eligible to hold the office,” State Elections Coordinator Mark Goins said.
Harrell, who defeated incumbent Laura Bohling in the May Republican primary, previously told The Post she was working with her attorneys to break ties with her company and deal with the outstanding bond if she wins election. Harrell could not be reached for comment on this article.
AAAA Bonding has received numerous extensions from Circuit Court Judge David Bragg dating back to December 2010 on two brothers, Dane and Charles Culver, who face charges for trying to sell psychedelic-mushroom-laced brownies at Bonnaroo. They fled to the United Kingdom, and according to the latest court papers filed July 21, Harrell said the U.S. Marshal’s Service needs more time to continue paperwork on the matter.
In February 2013, Chuck Thomas, a task force officer who works with the Marshal’s Service in Middle Tennessee, wrote to the court that it had adopted the case. His letter states that the U.S. Department of Justice and Interpol are monitoring both men in England and waiting for warrants from the United States. The matter is being hampered by case load and staffing levels, Thomas wrote.
Regardless of the reasons for the holdup, Lane says he believes Harrell could be ineligible at this point because early voting started two weeks ago for the Aug. 7 election. He argues that election officials at some stage of the qualification process should have flagged the outstanding bond Harrell has with the Circuit Court clerk’s office.
The law is set up to avoid conflicts of interest, because the Circuit Court clerk’s office works regularly with bonding companies that help those charged with crimes make bail.
“Somebody’s supposed to do that and it shouldn’t be the public or the candidates,” Lane said.
He calls this a “systemic problem” with the election process and notes, “Nobody is doing the age-old process of vetting.”
Rutherford County Election Commission Chairman Ransom Jones, a Republican, said this week he had little knowledge of the situation but pointed out that it probably will have to go through the court system.
Election Commissioner Johnny Taylor, a Democrat and previous chairman for 22 years, said he doesn’t believe it was the Election Commission’s responsibility to determine if Harrell met all the criteria in the state law.
“It is the responsibility of the State Election Commission to determine if she’s eligible to run,” he said.
The matter is also regulated by the Tennessee Department of Insurance and Commerce, which would determine whether she completely breaks ties with her bail bonding company, Taylor said.
At this point, the State Election Commission’s interpretation of the law sides with Harrell. Even though early voting is wrapping up, the election has not occurred yet, and since Harrell was determined to be eligible at the time ballots were approved, if she wins, it would be up to the courts to decide if she is eligible to serve, according to the State Election Commission.
“This office not aware of this issue being presented to the county election commission at or around the time of the qualifying deadline, but the statute specifically states ‘at the time of the election. Therefore, I do not believe this is an election commission issue,” Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins said. “We look at qualifications on the qualifying deadline. Courts are the proper authority to determine if someone has met the qualifications by Election Day.”
Goins further clarified that if voters choose a candidate, the courts would be “the proper authority” to determine eligibility for office.