Members of the Registry of Election Finance of the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance have reportedly ruled the allegations presented to them concerning the campaign of state Rep. Eric Watson for sheriff made by incumbent Sheriff Jim Ruth are “without merit.”
Ruth says the decision “is not a surprise.”
Findings by the commission, which met in Nashville Wednesday morning were released in a statement by Watson Wednesday evening.
As of press time, inquiries to the Registry’s office about the decision were unsuccessful.
According to Watson’s press release, the commission determined the allegations made in a Jan. 15 letter to the commission by Ruth are “frivolous and without merit.”
Watson’s press release quotes one of the commission’s members as saying the complaint was “a borderline abuse of process.”
“To me it looks like a cheap-shot campaign gimmick, trying to make something out of nothing,” Tennessee Ethics Registry member Hank Fincher is reported by Watson as saying at the hearing of Ruth’s charges. “I’d expect better from an officer of the law.”
Watson also says Ruth did not appear at the hearing to review the charges he had filed.
Ruth told the Cleveland Daily Banner he was not surprised by the commission’s findings.
“I expected the Ethics Committee would not agree with me,” Ruth said.
The sheriff said he remains firm in his stance that the way Watson has been financing his campaign is unethical.
“In my own view, he has deceived people right and left,” Ruth said.
The sheriff said even after Watson declared his candidacy for sheriff in October of last year, he continued to receive moneys for a state representative race.
“It’s a way to exceed the campaign contributions limits,” Ruth said. “He’s getting moneys for both campaigns and shifting the state (representative) campaign moneys to his other campaign.”
He added this shifting and transferring of funds “has been going on the whole time, and everyone knows it.”
Ruth released to the Daily Banner an addendum he sent to the commission on March 6.
Ruth’s complaint charged Watson had not been truthful about the circumstances surrounding his departure from the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office in 2011.
The sheriff charged Watson said he was leaving to help with his injured father while, according to Ruth, he had actually been “terminated for cheating on his time sheet and lying.”
Ruth’s addendum says after being confronted with the charges and told he was being terminated, “Sheriff Ruth allowed him to resign. Watson wrote a quick letter of resignation.”
Watson previously produced a letter from the Tennessee Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, whose certification is required for any candidate for the office of sheriff.
The letter, dated March 6, 2012, said at that time there was “nothing in Officer Watson’s P.O.S.T. officer file to indicate any problems or any action pending to revoke his Tennessee P.O.S.T. certification.”
The letter was signed by Johnny Welch, chief investigator for the commission.
Ruth’s major complaint has been Watson had already decided to enter the race for sheriff as he was collecting funds toward a re-election campaign for his state representative seat.
“I believe Watson acted fraudulently knowing that the rules governing the state representative race are far more lax than the rules for the sheriff’s race,” Ruth’s complaint stated.
Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, told area news outlets in January transfering money from one campaign to a later, separate campaign is legal.
“You can transfer excess campaign funds — which means funds that were raised for an election and that election has been completed — so they are excess and can be transferred,” Rawlins stated at the time.
With that statement, Watson said Ruth was potentially crossing a line of illegality himself, referring to Tennessee Code Annotated 2-19-142 which categorizes knowingly publishing false campaign literature as a Class C misdemeanor.
Ruth’s addendum gives several examples and a detailed timeline of his claims with witnesses who he says have seen examples of where Watson was openly readying for a run for sheriff prior to Watson’s official declaration of candidacy.
“In addition to the funds received and spent from the representative campaign after October 4 [the day Watson announced his candidacy for sheriff], there are many questions about the money that was used from that fund prior to the October 4 announcement and creation of the sheriff campaign fund,” Ruth’s addendum states.
Ruth cites Born Digital, a website and advertising group, which he says posted photographs on its Facebook page of Watson’s campaign material stating they had developed the designs.
He adds witnesses saw the designs on signs during the summer of 2013 before Watson had announced for the sheriff’s race.
“While Born Digital has been paid several thousands of dollars out of the representative campaign fund, there is no posting of moneys paid to Born Digital from Watson’s campaign fund,” Ruth stated. “This is yet another obvious indication that Watson used representative campaign funds toward his campaign for sheriff. These funds were used long before Watson created a sheriff’s campaign fund.”
Watson says all the sheriff’s allegations remain political trickery.
“I have always stood for strong campaign ethics and finance laws for Tennessee and today’s decision of the commission to dismiss Ruth’s complaint as being without merit shows just that,” Watson said. “One would expect Ruth to show up for this hearing. His failure to do so shows a complete lack of respect for the Tennessee Ethics Commission, the citizens of Tennessee, and the citizens of Bradley County, and further indicates he knew the allegations were frivolous and nothing more than a cheap, dirty political trick.”
Ruth stands by his assertion his opponent has not been ethical in the way he has run his race.
“I think it’s the deceit in the way he’s been taking money the public needs to know about,” Ruth said.