After nearly three years, expelled former Rep. Jeremy Durham is still under federal investigation, according to his attorney.
The finding comes amid Durham’s appeal of a record-setting $465,000 fine imposed in 2017 by state officials for campaign finance violations.
Speaking to Administrative Law Judge Steve Darnell last month, Peter Strianse — Durham’s attorney — said because his client was facing a federal probe and he could not appear at a hearing related to campaign finance penalty.
“The federal investigation continues to this day,” Strianse said, according to a transcript of the hearing provided to The Tennessean by the state attorney general’s office.
Strianse referred to the federal investigation multiple times at the roughly hour-long hearing, while asking Darnell to delay making a decision on the case.
“I do want the Court to know that it is an active criminal investigation in Federal Court appearing regularly in sealed matters relating to that,” Strianse said.
“And it’s not a stubbornness or unwillingness on the part of Mr. Durham to not appear here. It’s a profound concern that he has about testifying and waiving his Fifth Amendment privilege in this proceeding and it would be — it could be used against him in the federal investigation.”
The hearing — previously scheduled for December but inexplicably changed to early June — was held after Durham appealed the massive fine implemented by the Registry of Election Finance in 2017.
The fine came after an audit found he had used campaign money to illegally to buy custom suits, spa products and sunglasses. The audit also determined Durham had invested more than $100,000 into a company owned by Andy Miller, a controversial, wealthy Republican donor and loaned nearly $30,000 to a professional gambler with a criminal past.
Lawmakers expelled Durham from the legislature in September 2016 after a Tennessean investigation found he had sent inappropriate late-night text messages to three women. A subsequent probe by the Tennessee Attorney General’s office found he had inappropriate sexual conduct with at least 22 women.
News of the federal investigation into Durham first broke in August 2016, when Strianse told The Tennessean subpoenas for the Williamson County Republican’s financial records had been issued.
In November and December 2016, sources told The Tennessean they had been interviewed by the FBI and witnesses appeared in front of a grand jury as investigators looked into possible charges of “bribery, mail fraud and wire fraud.”
In addition to Strianse, Darnell heard from Janet Kleinfelter, an attorney representing the attorney general and the registry, who balked at the idea of delaying the case further.
“These are matters that need to be resolved, and quite frankly we could have this allegation, this assertion, that there’s an ongoing criminal investigation that could be made for the next five years,” Kleinfelter said.
Darnell opted against delaying the matter further.
During the hearing, Strianse mainly argued that the registry’s fines were excessive and departed from previous penalties against others. He said his client was guilty of little more than sloppy record keeping.
Kleinfelter said the records Durham provided do not simply show poor bookkeeping. She highlighted the actions of the registry, including the lengthy audit of Durham’s campaign finances that found he had violated state law hundreds of times.
Kleinfelter also rejected Strianse’s effort to submit a letter Durham and an unknown political adviser wrote in 2017 in response to the audit. The registry did not accept the letter as Durham’s official response because it was not notarized and Kleinfelter said it contained “nothing more than rank hearsay.”
Darnell said he would accept the letter as evidence in the case.
The judge said the case ultimately fell down to two issues: whether any campaign finance violations had occurred and whether the fine imposed on Durham was appropriate.
Darnell said he would give each side an opportunity to provide additional information before he makes a decision in the case.
In a move that could signal he is sympathetic to the claim that the fines against Durham were excessive, Darnell said any appeal by the registry would be heard in front a separate administrative law judge.
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Reach Joel Ebert at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-772-1681 and on Twitter @joelebert29.