Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron must pay a $135,000 penalty for 474 campaign finance law violations that the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance found in a series of audits.
The Registry voted last Wednesday to assess the penalty, as well as drop $80,000 in previously announced fines for missing deadlines to file campaign finance reports.
Three audits of Ketron’s campaign accounts for state senator, county mayor and Quest Political Action Committee were conducted last year at the request of Rutherford County Commissioner Robert Stevens.
The civil penalty total was calculated by assessing a $45,000 penalty against each of the three campaign accounts.
The county mayoral account civil penalty will have to be paid before Ketron runs for re-election next February. Ketron said he doesn’t plan to return to the state senate.
The payment plan will be made by Registry staff and will be recommended to the Registry at their next meeting.
Trey Harwell, one of Ketron’s legal representatives, said Ketron had been “cooperative” throughout the auditing process.
Ketron apologized for the amount of time that had to be devoted to discussing his campaign finance issues and acknowledged his embarrassment.
“I fully accept full responsibility for what has occurred, but I also want to make it clear that none of my campaign funds were knowingly used for non-campaign purposes,” said Ketron, “Were mistakes made? Yes. Did I knowingly or intentionally make them? No.”
Ketron delivered an emotional opening statement that detailed issues that came after his Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis at the end of 2014. He also mentioned the death of his mother, which happened shortly after that. His goal was to provide “context” for his decision to take on his daughter, Kelsey, as campaign treasurer.
Ketron quarantined for several months in the fall of 2015 away from his family’s business, Universal International Insurance, because of his diagnosis. He re-entered the legislative session as state senator in January of 2016.
“To look at my campaign, to look at my three disclosures that are in question today, to look at my business, I had no choice but to turn to my daughter,” said Ketron, who said he now realizes the weight of the responsibilities bestowed on her at 24.
Kelsey Ketron was sentenced to eight years of probation last February after pleading no contest to 15 counts accusing her of fraudulent insurance acts, forgery, theft of property and impersonating a licensed professional, according to a news release.
Ketron said he would check in with his daughter to make sure she was keeping up with filings and deadlines, and she reassured him that she was attending to her duties as treasurer.
He accepted the blame for giving his daughter “too much responsibility” and attributes the violations found in the audits to “poor bookkeeping and administrative practices.” He dismissed the idea of there being any “mystery money” because the audit reveals the source of funds and where they were used.
“I believe that it’s obvious that this was done in haste with a lack of attention to detail,” said Ketron, who said that an inaccurate recording of initial account balances set up the errors. He said that was not an attempt to bypass finance laws.
Ketron has hired a new treasurer and his daughter has been prohibited from working on his campaign.
Registry member Henry “Hank” Fincher asked why Ketron kept his daughter on as treasurer after they both appeared before the Registry a few years ago.
Ketron said it was a result of his too trusting nature despite his wife’s suggestion that the job may have been too overwhelming for their daughter.
Registry Member Tom Morton suggested assessing a $500 penalty per violation. The $80,000 the registry has already assessed in penalties for the senate and Quest PAC accounts would be waived. Ketron would also be required to close those two accounts.
Fincher said that per option would be unreasonable because each violation has a different dollar amount, several under $100, attached to it.
“I think that it's unfair to the lower violations in that it’s too high, and it’s unfair to the higher violations in that it's too low,” said Fincher, who suggested a per case or per finding penalty due to mitigating factors like Ketron’s health issues.
Fincher proposed charging a penalty of $25,000 per each account, or $75,000 total. Registry Member William “Paz” Haynes III suggested the $135,000 penalty ($45,000 per campaign account). The previous penalties would still be forgiven in both instances.
The board voted in favor of Haynes’ proposal and agreed to allow Ketron to pay the civil penalties in a payment plan, suggested by Fincher, to reduce financial impact on him as suggested by Fincher. Board member Tom Lawless did not participate in the vote.