Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has provided a letter from the Tennessee Ethics Commission as a response to claims that his “Red Tape” initiative involves a violation of the law, but Democrats say the letter does not address the issue.
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester this week told WJHL-TV, an Upper East Tennessee television station, that it is illegal for Ramsey to use his publicly funded office to promote a website funded by his political action committee, RAAMPAC.
Ramsey, a Republican from Blountville who is speaker of the Tennessee Senate, has a website called TNRedtape.com., which is funded by RAAMPAC. The site is designed to address issues regarding government regulations. The lieutenant governor has launched a series of “Red Tape Road Trips” that focus on government regulations. His first meeting was in Clarksville on Thursday.
Ramsey was asked after that meeting if there was any reason to be concerned that what he is doing is illegal.
“Absolutely none,” he said.
Ramsey’s meetings are aimed at hearing people’s concerns about regulations that may be impeding business. Forrester said in his television interview that Ramsey is unlawfully mixing policy and politics.
“To use the official office to promote a PAC-paid website is clearly against the law in Tennessee,” Forrester told WJHL-TV. “Furthermore, we’re very curious as to whether Lt. Gov. Ramsey is collecting his per diem.”
Ramsey produced a letter Thursday from Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, dated that day, saying Rawlins is not aware that any statute enforced by the Tennessee Ethics Commission was violated when Ramsey’s PAC created the site.
But the state Democratic Party says that’s not the problem.
“What Governor Ramsey asked is not the correct question,” said Brandon Puttbrese, communications director for the Tennessee Democratic Party. “He got the answer he was looking for. The serious question here is if using his official office to promote his PAC website is a violation of the Little Hatch Act.”
The Little Hatch Act refers to a law regarding the involvement of government employees for political purposes. The law prohibits public officers and employees from participating in any political activity while on duty (pdf). Tennessee’s Little Hatch Act mirrors the federal Hatch Act.
Rawlins, when contacted by TNReport Friday afternoon, said Ramsey’s question was not submitted in writing.
The ethics commission executive director said the question from Ramsey arose because the lieutenant governor apparently “wanted to make sure there was no ethics violation by RAAMPAC paying for the website.”
“I viewed the website and did not see any ethics violation, and that’s why I wrote the letter,” Rawlins said. “But there wasn’t any written request for a letter from me.”
Rawlins said his office does not handle alleged Little Hatch Act violations. Rawlins said he wasn’t sure who would look into Little Hatch Act allegations. He said he was not asked by Ramsey if it was appropriate or a potential violation of law to have his publicly funded staff doing work on the website.
“That was not a question I was asked, and I would not have answered that one because we do not have authority over that,” Rawlins said.
Puttbrese, the Democratic spokesman, said there should be some clarity on Ramsey’s activity, and he pointed to the broader issue of Ramsey’s use of his public office.
“If he’s using his official office to promote his PAC website, that’s a problem, because he’s using taxpayer dollars to promote a website that grows his fundraising database,” Puttbrese said.
“I think this is a muddy issue here, and Governor Ramsey specifically has flirted with this line before, when his office sent out communications so he could endorse Rick Perry’s failed presidential run, and also in the spring he rolled out the TNRedtape using the official office of the lieutenant governor. He also had a taxpayer-funded website, ltgov.tn.gov, which is no more than a repackaging of all of his political communications.”
The issue may present a murky area between the line of governing and conducting political activity.
“I understand that a politician is going to do politicking,” Puttbrese said. “But he (Ramsey) dances in the gray area. And it could be that he’s thumbing his nose at the rules here.”
Ramsey’s website TNRedtape.com states that the site is paid for by RAAMPAC.
Ramsey was unavailable for comment Friday. He told the audience in Clarksville on Thursday that he was going to South Dakota pheasant hunting the next day.
The Oct. 13 letter from Rawlins to Ramsey reads:
Dear Gov. Ramsey:
You have asked if RAAMPAC paying for the creation of the TNREDTAPE.com website violated any ethic statute enforced by the Tennessee Ethics Commission (Commission). Based upon my review of the ethic statutes and the website, I am not aware of any statute, enforced by the Commission, which was violated by RAAMPAC paying for the creation of the website.
Please note that it does appear that you would need to disclose the activity on your Statement of Interests pursuant to TCA 8-5-502(5).
If you have any additional questions, please let me know.
Cc: Lance Frizzell
Puttbrese said Friday the request was off-target.
“It’s not a question of whether a politician can set up a PAC and set up a PAC website. That’s not what we’re questioning,” Puttbrese said. “So for him to get a letter from Drew Rawlins saying, yes, it’s legal for PACs to set up websites, we’re not questioning that.
“Whether it’s appropriate for him to be promoting his political fundraising website through his official office is the question.”
Ramsey said Thursday that Forrester’s objections were a typical example of the Democratic Party “grasping at straws.”
“Not only has their power dwindled away, but it continues to dwindle away,” Ramsey said. “They can’t talk about the issue because they lose. They can’t talk about what’s important to Tennesseans so they come up with their fake issues, like this that’s, number one, wrong, and number two, something that most people wouldn’t care about anyway.
“It’s just a blatant attempt by Chip Forrester to take an attack at me.”
Ramsey said it was because he had been able to lead Republicans into the majority in the Senate.
Ramsey’s communications director, Adam Kleinheider, issued a statement Friday.
“It is the height of irony that the Democratic Party — the party of Tennessee Waltz and Solyndra – throws baseless accusations at Republicans working to give Tennesseans the streamlined and efficient government they deserve,” Kleinheider said.
“Tennessee Democrats should be ashamed that one of its leaders is attacking a good government initiative as though it were somehow wrong. It is sad that the once proud party of Andrew Jackson has been reduced to this behavior.”
Ramsey has made the Red Tape website the focus of his attention on reducing or streamlining regulations in the state. He says R-E-D-T-A-P-E stands for “Reducing Employee Decisions That Affect People Everyday.”
Among the complaints Ramsey heard Thursday were about how involved the appeals process is on unemployment benefits, taxes on personal property used in a small business and the process for selection of consultants on construction projects for the Tennessee Board of Regents.
Mark Todd Engler contributed to this story.