NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Leaked documents have triggered new controversy surrounding an out-of-state group that's trying to help oust three Tennessee Supreme Court justices.
Those documents, obtained by the national website Politico, raise questions about how the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) did business in neighboring Alabama.
Politico broke the story Monday under the headline: "Powerhouse GOP group snared in money scheme."
It said that the RSLC was implicated in a "risky campaign finance scheme that an internal report warned could trigger 'possible criminal penalties.'"
Politico reported that, in 2010, the group was used "as a pass-through for controversial Indian tribe donations, essentially laundering 'toxic' money from the gaming industry by routing it out of state and then back into Alabama."
Current leaders noted that people involved in that controversy no longer work there, and no one was ever charged.
Still, some of Tennessee's biggest corporations have been encouraged to give big bucks to that same out-of-state group to help shake-up Tennessee's high court.
And NewsChannel 5 Investigates discovered one of those donors is a Middle Tennessee nursing-home chain that has a lot at stake.
National HealthCare Corp. (NHC) operates nursing homes across Tennessee and has occasionally been hit with lawsuits alleging abuse or neglect.
In such cases, the courts have not always been a friendly place for the nursing home giant.
That's why the Murfreesboro-based corporation has tried to force the elderly to sign contracts agreeing that if something does happen, instead of suing, they'll use a process called "binding arbitration."
"What's happening is that they are putting in these arbitration clauses to basically keep people from going to court to get redress of their grievances," said Nashville lawyer Ed Yarbrough, who served as U.S. Attorney under former President George W. Bush.
But Tennessee courts have not always seen it NHC's way, ruling that forcing the sick and elderly to sign away their legal rights can sometimes be "unconscionable."
In fact, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey admitted back in April that an NHC official joined discussions about how to oust the three Democratic appointees.
And Ramsey's office listed one of those binding arbitration cases as proof of the need for new judges.
Then, when conservatives launched their campaign, a direct-mail piece of that effort was financed by the Republican State Leadership Committee.
So far, the RSLC has reported spending almost $200,000.
NHC gave the group $25,000 in June 2014, according to a report filed with the IRS by the Republican group.
"I think it's opening the door to the possibility of people buying courts, yes," Yarbrough said.
He added that he worries about the implications of big corporations trying to overthrow a state's high court.
"I'm pro-business, I think most people are. But if the pro-business attitude begins to control what the Constitution says, then that's the tail wagging the dog," Yarbrough said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates reached out to NHC on two separate occasions to give the corporation a chance to respond, but no one ever called back.
Earlier this year, NewsChannel 5 asked Ramsey if his effort suggested that "big business is trying to buy the Supreme Court."
"No, I don't want them to buy it," the Blountville Republican responded, "but I want them to be involved."
As for the notion that nursing home residents could have their rights affected by a political campaign, Yarbrough said:
"So who in Tennessee wants to throw that out and allow their aunt or grandmother to be forced into arbitration when she might get injured as a result of negligence in a nursing home? People have not thought this through."
But critics of the justices point out that among their contributors are some of the state's trial lawyers -- lawyers who make a living off of suing doctors and big corporations.
Hendersonville lawyer Dulin Kelly started a political action committee -- Tennesseans for Fair Courts -- that's bought TV time to respond to the attacks on the justices.
So far, it's raised and spent $46,000 -- although most of that money came from a group that includes both plaintiff and defense lawyers.
"People will say look at Mr. Kelly, he's a trial lawyer," we noted.
"I am," he agreed.
"And he's out there defending these justices."
"I am -- because I want the court to always be a place when I go into it with my client, regardless of who it is, that each of us has the same right to justice."
He added, "I'm just sitting here and wondering about the poor guy who may have been injured and gotten his leg cut off and he lost his case, does he have $25,000 to try to unseat the court. I don't think so."
Yarbrough said, "The public is being asked to throw out three very good judges in my mind, not knowing what they might get in place of that."
Ramsey's presentation also includes a case where the Supreme Court ruled against Tractor Supply.
Dorothy Scarlett, the wife of Tractor Supply retired CEO Joe Scarlett, also gave $25,000 to the RSLC, the group reported.
According to the disclosure filed with the IRS, other Tennessee individuals and corporations contributing to the Republican State Leadership Committee in June were:
- Check Into Cash Inc., Cleveland, $20,000
- Lee Company, Nashville, $10,000
- Willis Johnson, Copart Inc., Franklin, $10,000
- Scott Niswonger, Landair Transport, Greeneville, $10,000
- Helen Rodgers, Nashville, $10,000
- Southern Champion Tray, Chattanooga, $10,000
- Virginia McCall, Carthage, $5,000
- Andrew Miller Jr., HealthMark Ventures, Nashville, $5,000
- Thomas Rice, Sweeping Corp. of America, Nashville, $5,000
- W.E. Sheriff, American Senior Living, $5,000
- Wolfe Development, Jonesborough, $3,000
- XI Investments, Cookeville, $1,000
A full accounting of the RSLC's contributors from Tennessee during the campaign will not be available until later this month.
In addition, Americans for Prosperity -- a group started by the billionaire Koch Brothers -- is spending money to oust the justices that it will never be required to disclose.
To view contributors to the justices' campaigns or Ramsey's RAAMPAC, search the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance's database.