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Nashville Banner exposes details behind local election commission’s high legal bills

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  1. Freedom of Information
Records the Nashville Banner obtained with the help of an RCFP attorney explain an election commission's high legal bills.

The final tab came to $891,586.

That’s how much it cost Nashville-area taxpayers for the Davidson County Election Commission to litigate an anti-tax charter amendment it wanted to put on the ballot in 2021. Officials revealed the total cost after the nonprofit Nashville Banner and other local news outlets asked how much the election commission paid to have outside lawyers wage a year-long legal battle against the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County over the charter amendment.

For Steve Cavendish, however, the total cost wasn’t enough. The president and editor of the Banner wanted to see all of the billing records associated with the election commission’s ultimately unsuccessful legal effort to get the anti-tax charter amendment on the ballot. The problem was that Election Commission officials refused to turn over the invoices, even after the litigation wrapped up earlier this year.

Unwilling to leave it there, Cavendish contacted Paul McAdoo, the Tennessee Local Legal Initiative attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Why would billing records for outside counsel be privileged?” he asked.

McAdoo explained that it was likely an overreach for the election commission to withhold all of the billing records, and he walked the journalist through legal precedents that would support his case for the records.

“It was incredibly helpful,” Cavendish said.

Cavendish used that information to submit a request under the Tennessee Public Records Act for the election commission’s invoices. In his request, he said he noted that not only was the relevant case law on his side, but that the billing records were clearly in the public interest.

“To my utter amazement, they gave me the records,” Cavendish said, noting that officials turned over the records without any redactions. “I walked into that records request armed with a full set of facts to set up the situation, and the response I got was successful.”

The billing records provided important insight into why the total cost of 14 months of legal representation was so high. As Cavendish reported in a story published on Oct. 31, “the bills show most of the litigation was paid at the highest rates, and that many charges and practices that frequently would receive pushback in the corporate arena were approved by” the election commission’s chairman.

Cavendish said he noticed services that were double-billed, including communications between attorneys, as well as other issues that could be attributed to the election commission’s decision to choose as its lead counsel a high-profile academic who needed to hire an outside firm to help with the litigation.

“You end up with a situation where not only did they hire an outside lawyer, they hired a lot of outside lawyers,” he said.

The election commission’s chairman, Jim DeLanis, defended the decision to hire the professor from Vanderbilt University, telling Cavendish that he “is an authority on election law.”

But Cavendish said the billing records suggest that “nobody was looking out for the taxpayer.” He said the taxpayer money that was used to fight for the failed ballot initiative should have instead been used to pay for the administration of elections.

Cavendish, a veteran newspaper journalist, said he’s especially grateful for the free legal support he received from McAdoo and the Reporters Committee, especially given the infancy of his startup nonprofit, which won’t officially launch until next year.

“I knew that I had not only good legal help, but it was also free to me,” Cavendish said, noting that the Banner doesn’t even have a legal budget right now. “And for somebody like me who is watching every penny before we launch, that meant that we could go do journalism as opposed to shrugging and saying, ‘Well, these records weren’t available to us.’”

The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.

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