By EMILY R. WEST
Before District 12 board member Susan Curlee leaves the Williamson County School Board, she will exit on a large note.
As of this week, the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance Registry of Election Finance released 1,000 documents that came from Curlee in regard to her complaint against Williamson Strong, a parent group advocating for Williamson County Schools.
Curlee submitted her original complaint to the Registry in December 2014. She alleged that Williamson Strong acted as an unregistered political action committee in the 2014 election cycle. That complaint was investigated through May 2015, when the Registry found Williamson Strong didn’t comply with two components of the Tennessee Code Annotated campaign election laws. From there, the group has appealed the decision, working to prove they never acted as a PAC. The Registry also levied a $5,000 penalty for not complying with the requirement to register as a PAC or disclose its expenditures. Williamson Strong also has filed a federal lawsuit about the case that’s still pending.
Williamson Strong has contended throughout the nearly two-year process that they were never a PAC. The group – Jennifer Smith, Susan Drury, Jim Cheney, Susan Bernard and Kim Henke – started back in summer 2014, announcing themselves as “grassroots group” who cared about the quality of public schools. They then started a website and social media accounts.
Originally, Curlee said she never wanted the hundreds of documents publicly released for fear of retribution. She expressed this sentiment in both her 200-page deposition from June 6, and an interview with the Home Page on Friday morning.
“My concern with the subpoena was that it was an overly broad fishing expedition. I was also concerned private communications would be misinterpreted, perverted and twisted into a character assassination of those who I have private communications with,” Curlee said. “For one particular group, character assassination and conspiracy theories appear to be their modus opreandi. The focus should not be on me, but on the question at hand – which is if the activities, expenditures and things of value rose to such a level, a group should have registered as a political action committee.”
The documents Curlee had to provide were emails either to officials with the Registry; the Tennessee District Attorney General Counsel; copies of emails to herself; emails involving reporters with various news outlets; emails among newly elected school board members before they received school district accounts; and officials ranging from state representatives, one City of Franklin alderman and one Williamson County Commissioner.
Curlee iterated that she felt the line of questioning in her deposition felt somewhat targeted, particularly regarding her communications with Rep. Glen Casada (R-Thompson’s Station). Williamson Strong’s lawyer Anthony Orlandi asked various questions about their relationship. He also questioned if that was a reason she didn’t want the documents released.
According to the documents, their communications started via email on June 7, 2014, before Williamson Strong officially launched. Those opposing the parents group had wondered if Superintendent Mike Looney had anything to do with its evolution. Looney, in his own deposition, said he had nothing to do with Williamson Strong.
Looney did, however, express that Casada’s stance toward public schools didn’t warrant his support in that 2014 election. He explained that he told Casada as an individual running in his district, he wouldn’t support him. Looney noted that he put a sign atop of his family car supporting his opponent, former school board member Cherie Hammond, who lost to Casada in primary.
When Curlee asked around about how the group began, Casada emailed responding that he had heard of one of the members – Jennifer Smith. He classified her as a liberal and “a dem.”
“If you find any concrete evidence that Looney is involved in supporting or endorsing any candidate, please let me know!” he emailed. “It’s a class c felony if he uses his office for political purposes!”
Their communications went lax after that initial contact. The only other time Curlee reached out happened before the 2015 legislative session. In an email, she explained to her representative that she had sent her complainant to the Registry and hoped it would be heard seriously.
“I was asked a lot of questions about Glen Casada,” she said. “I got the sense there was suspicion of a conspiracy of sorts. There was an email or two where I asked if he knew anyone at the Registry and if so, I hoped they would consider my complaint objectively and seriously. I was most concerned about the integrity of local elections and wasn’t asking for special favor or treatment.”
In an interview with the Home Page on Friday, Casada said while was mentioned in relation to the case, he had nothing to do with it.
She also asked about the Little Hatch Act, which doesn’t allow misuse of official authority in elections. Casada later amended state law in 2015 to include school personnel, as it previously didn’t include them. He added his changing state law had nothing to with Looney’s alleged involvement with Williamson Strong. The superintendent repeatedly denied in his deposition any involvement.
“That was alleged multiple times, but there was no evidence, and that wasn’t one of the drivers of me carrying it,” Casada said.
Curlee indicated that while she’s afraid of retribution with the release of these documents, she hoped it would bring some of her unanswered questions about the 2014 election to the light.
“My whole concern was fairness of local elections. There are rules the state has,” she said. “And if people have broken those, it’s up for the state to decide if rules have been broken and to assess penalties. I also question is has anyone has objectively questioned the political activity of Williamson County Schools employees and sitting board members in the 2014 elections. There were a number of politically charged emails, and no one seems to be questioning those clear violations of policy, ethics and acceptable use standards. There were also potential breeches of contract.”
This is part one in a series of the Williamson Strong PAC case in light of the recent release of the subpoenaed documents and depositions. A hearing of the Williamson Strong appeal is slated for November.