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Yager files request to investigate text messages, campaign finance

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(The Center Square) – Tennessee Sen. Ken Yager recently asked the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance to look into the East Tennessee Conservatives PAC and its connections to candidate Bobby Harshbarger, who is running against Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, in District 4 including Hawkins and Sullivan counties.

The request came after text messages were sent from the PAC related to Lundberg’s voting record.

Harshbarger is the son of U.S. Rep. Diana Harshbarger, R-1st Congressional District, and Yager said in his letter that the PAC and Diana Harshbarger share a campaign treasurer.

“There are many ways PACs can run afoul of campaign laws and skirt contribution limits,” Yager said in a statement to The Center Square. “Campaigns have contribution limits while PACs do not. There are also laws against coordination between campaigns and PACs.

“I believe the various connections between the Bobby Harshbarger campaign and the East Tennessee Conservatives PAC need to be scrutinized, and as chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, this complaint was the best way I could bring these issues to light.”

PAC Treasurer Thomas Datwyler is the treasurer for dozens of conservative campaigns and PACs across the country. He confirmed to The Center Square that “no money was shared between the campaigns or PAC’s in any way. That would be illegal.”

Bobby Harshbarger’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the complaint.

“I can promise you there is no coordination or connection between the Harshbarger’s and East Tennessee Conservatives PAC,” Datwyler told The Center Square.

The East Tennessee Conservatives PAC is not affiliated with the grassroots East Tennessee Conservatives.

East Tennessee Conservative co-chair Susan Baugh said that she has been contacted by several people with confusion over the text messages.

The PAC is registered with an email for Ax Capital Compliance, where Datwyler is CEO. Ax Capital is a vendor that Diana Harshbarger’s campaign sent 24 payments for a total of nearly $29,000.

Overall, Harshbarger is one of nearly 200 campaigns or PACs to pay Ax Capital for services, which Ax Capital’s website says include every detail of campaign accounting and campaign compliance.

Datwyler said that his role is campaign finance compliance.

“I can promise you there is no coordination or connection between the Harshbarger’s and East Tennessee Conservatives PAC,” Datwyler said.

Yager said that he is concerned with falsehoods sent in text messages by the East Tennessee Conservatives PAC.

“As a long-time public servant, I am familiar with political spin and campaign exaggerations,” Yager told The Center Square. “However, these blatantly untrue claims go far beyond that.”

Yager pointed to a text message saying Lundberg voted for tuition for illegal immigrants when he voted no on the bill, which failed by one vote in the House where Lundberg served at the time, meaning it was a crucial vote defeating the bill.

“I am aware of several other instances where Sen. Lundberg took a hardline in favor of strong borders and against illegal immigration,” Yager said. ”They are brazenly spreading falsehoods about a man’s public record. That is simply unacceptable in my view. Whether it is explicitly illegal is a question for the Registry of Election Finance or the Attorney General, which is why I filed the complaint.”