Government watchdog group questions campaign contributions given to Hamilton County commissioners
A government watchdog group is questioning campaign contributions given to some Hamilton County commissioners.
The Beacon Center based in Nashville claims the donations were made to persuade votes.
Channel 3 dug through hundreds of pages of campaign finance reports and spoke with commissioners to get answers.
The Beacon Center reached out to Channel 3 in May about concerns that commissioners were taking donations in exchange for supporting a new Chattanooga Lookouts stadium.
Instead of sharing their concerns immediately, Channel 3 spent months looking into their claims.
Tens of thousands of dollars worth of campaign donations poured in ahead of the August county general election.
On the ballot were nine county commission seats.
Mark Cunningham with the Beacon Center said seven of those commissioners received what he calls questionable donations.
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THE CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS | Watchdog group alleges donations made to commissioners for Lookouts stadium
"It appeared from these kind of strange donations on the same day by people directly involved with the lookouts that there's something going on here,” Mark Cunningham, a spokesman for the Beacon Center said.
Contribution reports show Lookouts Managing Co-Owner John Woods or his company donated $1500, the maximum donation, to six commissioners within a two-week span.
The contributions were made using three different names.
Cunningham who is against taxpayer dollars being used to build a new Lookouts stadium believes the contributions were meant to influence commissioners.
"I hope that this process is transparent and ultimately, I hope that tax dollars are not spent on a stadium that the people don't want and they don't need,” Cunningham said.
Woods told Channel 3 over the phone the donations had nothing to do with the Lookouts. He added that he was “not trying to buy anybody’s vote” and that he “believes in good government.”
His co-owner, Jason Freier, agreed. Freier owns the Fort Wayne Tincaps.
The minor league team created more than $100 million in private investment and development for Fort Wayne's downtown area.
The city of Fort Wayne chipped in to make it happen.
A similar approach has been discussed in Chattanooga.
A study of the South Broad District from the Chattanooga Design Studio said creating a sports and entertainment venue could spur development.
It suggests relocating the Chattanooga Lookouts stadium to the former foundry site, which is owned by Freier.
According to contribution reports, Freier only gave to one campaign, Tim Boyd's.
He told Channel 3 about the donations saying in a text message:
“Neither the Team nor I have been frequent or significant contributors to Chattanooga-area politicians. The few contributions made were in connection with our attendance at specific events to which we were invited. While the Lookouts have more than fifteen local owners, each has his or her own business, ventures and/or interest in Chattanooga. I have no idea what these non-operating owners do or do not contribute to any campaigns, and neither I nor the team have any control over that. Many business owners and other concerned citizens in any city contribute to campaigns for candidates they want to support. Chattanooga is no different.”
"I would like to think that people contributed to my campaign because they think I'm doing a good job, but I've not had any conversations with any individuals about the Lookouts or anything else,” Commissioner Sabrena Smedley said.
Commissioner Smedley received the maximum donation from Woods, but denied any connection to a new stadium.
"The only link that I could even make was that I did receive contributions after we supported the dump out in Harrison,” Smedley said.
Smedley is one of five commissioners who also received donations from Bill Lind and Greg Krum, business partners with Woods in connection to a landfill project that passed the commission in October.
Lind and Krum have not returned Channel 3’s calls for comment.
The donations were made using a variety of names a month later.
"I just assumed that the time I put into that and the homework I did on that vote was just appreciated,” Commissioner Smedley said.
Channel 3 contacted all seven commissioners involved.
Commissioner Greg Martin said “the Beacon Center’s ‘belief’ is misdirected and unfortunate. My vote is not and never has been ‘for sale.’”
Commissioner Warren Mackey told Channel 3 “this is the first time that I’ve heard that the aforesaid supporters have any stake in the proposed stadium. Please know that as far as I’m concerned to accept money under any preconditions would be unethical and probably illegal.”
Former Commissioner Joe Graham said “no it would never influence vote on anything. A donation would not. If a new stadium is built with possibility of vote, it needs to go on a ballot. Not just 9 commissioners.”
Commissioner Tim Boyd told Channel 3 “If the Beacon group wants to question me about any of my campaign donations, I suggest they contact me.”
Former Commissioner Greg Beck did not return our calls or emails.
Commissioner Sabrena Smedley added that she “thought the contributions were an appreciation” and that she has never "had a conversation about the Lookouts or the stadium.”
Commissioner Randy Fairbanks told Channel 3 “the claim is totally false.”
The commissioners who Channel 3 spoke with denied there being any connection between campaign dollars and votes that are final or ones to come.
Channel 3 followed up with Woods on Monday by phone. He said his donations appeared with multiple names because of how each campaign reported the donations.
He emphasized he was “not trying to buy political influence” and that each contribution came from his company.
UTC Political Science Assistant Professor Dr. Amanda Wintersieck said there are numerous reasons a donor would give to multiple candidates.
She told Channel 3 they’re essentially covering their bases no matter the election’s outcome.