Registry of Election Finance sued over secret vote

Attorneys at Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on Wednesday, April 29 filed a lawsuit against Tennessee Registry of Election Finance for violating the state’s Open Meetings Act when it held a secret vote by email.

The suit, filed on behalf of a coalition of Tennessee news media and open government organizations, is the first brought as part of the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative, launched this year to support enterprise and investigative journalism at the local level.

The complaint alleges that the Registry, which enforces campaign finance laws, secretly approved by an email vote a $22,000 settlement offer made by Tennessee House Rep. Joe Towns to resolve more than $65,000 owed in outstanding civil penalties. The public was only notified that the email vote took place and that the Registry members approved the settlement 4-2. The Registry members’ emails in which they cast their votes, and other details, including who moved to accept the settlement and who seconded the motion, have not been made available to the public.

“The Open Meetings Act plainly states, and courts in Tennessee have upheld, that all votes by a government body must be public, and that secret votes, including by electronic communications such as email, must not be used to decide public business,” said Paul McAdoo, the Local Legal Initiative staff attorney based in Tennessee.

“While government officials implement necessary changes in how they conduct business during the pandemic consistent with Governor Lee’s executive order, they must still uphold both the letter and the spirit of Tennessee’s transparency laws.”

Katie Townsend, legal director for the Reporters Committee, added, “This lawsuit strikes at the core of what we repeatedly heard from local journalists as we launched the Local Legal Initiative: Reporting is too often stymied by a lack of access to public meetings and records. The Open Meetings Act is intended to ensure that public officials are accountable to the communities they serve. Enforcing that transparency mandate is essential.”

The media coalition represented by the Reporters Committee includes the Associated Press and its reporter Kimberlee Kruesi, Chattanooga Publishing Company, Gannett GP Media Inc. and its vice president and editor Michael Anastasi, Gould Enterprises Inc., Meredith Corporation and its chief investigative reporter Jeremy Finley, Memphis Fourth Estate Inc., Scripps Media Inc. and its investigative reporter Ben Hall, TEGNA Inc. and its news directors Lisa Lovell and Jeremy Campbell, Tennessee Association of Broadcasters, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Inc., and Tennessee Press Association.

The Local Legal Initiative provides local journalists and news organizations with the direct legal services they need to pursue enterprise and investigative stories in their communities by basing a Reporters Committee attorney directly in states around the country. The Local Legal Initiative is made possible with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Learn more at rcfp.org/local.