published Friday, February 1st, 2013

Letter stirs Democratic Party controversy


by Chris Carroll
Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith.
Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith.
Photo by John Rawlston.

Pressure mounted on Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith this week as another inconsistency emerged in his account of rental expenses at party headquarters.

Smith's latest contradiction surfaced as Democratic insiders questioned his ability to run the county party.

In a Tuesday letter to party Vice Chairman Rodney Strong, former party chairman Stuart James called for Smith's resignation, citing a Jan. 24 board meeting where Smith ordered a Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter off the premises.

The Democratic Party requires official board meetings to be open to the public.

"It appears that Mr. Smith is deceiving the public, the press and the party he professes to lead," James wrote. "Mr. Smith is doing an excellent job convincing the public that the Party he leads operates in secret and is led by corrupt people."

In the letter, James asked Strong to work toward Smith's removal or resignation. James also suggested "an immediate audit by an independent accounting firm of the party's finances."

Strong declined to comment.

Smith's latest inconsistency occurred in a separate letter printed in Wednesday's Chattanooga Times editorial page. In it, Smith referred to the party's 841 E. Main St. headquarters and said political candidate Moses Freeman "is subletting the space from the building's owner during his campaign for City Council."

That is not what he told his board at the Jan. 24 meeting at party headquarters, where a large Freeman campaign sign hung over the awning.

Freeman, a Democrat, is running against City Councilman and fellow Democrat Andraé McGary for the same nonpartisan City Council seat. On Wednesday, McGary said the rental arrangement smacks of "backroom politics" with special perks for one Democrat over the other.

At the Jan. 24 meeting, board member Rita Fehring asked for specifics about the $675-per-month arrangement, according to a recording obtained by the Times Free Press.

Referring to the Democratic Party, Fehring said, "We've sublet for two months?"

"Yes, essentially," Smith replied. "[Freeman is] paying -- he's going to pay two months rent. We're paying the lights and the water ... and the Internet."

Smith told board members his rationale.

"I think it's better that we can get several hundred dollars out of the building here," he told the board.

Smith changed his story four days later. In an interview, he said Freeman was renting and "that's paying for all the use of everything for that facility. If there's anything else, I'm unaware of it."

Smith's letter to the editor also did not mention helping Freeman with expenses.

In a Monday night interview, McGary questioned Smith's integrity, demanding equal treatment.

"Mr. Freeman is no more a Democrat than I am," McGary said. "Until Mr. Smith is more forthcoming, my fear is the party is suffering a severe blow to its image. It's hard for people to take us seriously."

The feud amplifies a simmering antipathy among board members. Smith's critics are divided over how to proceed: On one hand, officer elections are in April, so why not wait out the chairman's term? Others believe Smith is lying to the board and the public and must go now.

Board member Joda Thongnopnua said he's weighing both options.

"I just think that people should know what's going on," he said Wednesday. "He's consistently broken party bylaws, so it's worth considering whether he should resign."

Several recent incidents have fueled the fire.

Board members criticized Smith last September for including on a board agenda what many considered a sexist joke. Before that, Smith's move to expel longtime Democratic activist Jim Hall drew scorn.

And according to the recording of the Jan. 24 meeting, board members hit Smith for unilaterally endorsing Chattanooga mayoral candidate Andy Berke without board approval.

Democratic National Committee bylaws say "all meetings of ... official Party committees, commissions and bodies shall be open to the public."

When the Times Free Press obtained the recording and published a Saturday story about it, Smith responded with a statement saying the private meeting "[violated] none of the ... bylaws under which we operate."

A few hours later, Smith modified the statement to say, "technically, while we should have formally adjourned the board meeting and resumed as [a private strategy] session, in effect that is what was done."

The change occurred after the Times Free Press contacted an expert the party said would support its argument that officials followed proper procedure in conducting a secret board meeting.

In the interview, the expert, Democratic National Committee member Bill Owen, said the party was wrong.

"Any regularly called board meeting is and should be open to the press," Owen said. "And I'm a Paul Smith fan. He's been electing Democrats for 50 years."

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