Knoxville News Sentinel: Former congressman John Duncan paid lawyers $115,000 from his leftover campaign cash

By Tyler Whetstone

Former Knoxville Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. is still spending his campaign war chest and in 2019 the money mostly was used to pay attorney fees. Since leaving office Jan. 2, 2019, Duncan has spent $115,592 on legal fees.

Duncan is required by Federal Election Commission rules to detail campaign dollars spent. He has roughly $700,000 left in his account, according to the latest FEC filings.

The payments were first reported by the Tennessee Journal, which also recently reported former Duncan staffers have been interviewed by federal investigators.

Before he left office, the House Ethics Committee was in the midst of investigating Duncan for what it said was his improper use of thousands of campaign dollars on personal expenses for himself and family.

The expenses totaled more than $100,000 and included trips for Duncan’s family and friends to the upscale Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, to the 2017 presidential inauguration in Washington, and to New York City for a National Republican Congressional Committee event, according to a report by the nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics.

Other expenses outlined in the 57-page report include thousands of dollars for membership dues and private parties, including baby showers and bridal dinners, at the Club LeConte in Knoxville and membership dues at the Knoxville Quarterback Club.

The House Ethics Committee lost jurisdiction over the issue once Duncan left office, but the committee could have passed the investigation to the Department of Justice or the DOJ could review it on its own. The statute of limitations for federal charges is five years.

Duncan has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Where the money went

Duncan paid roughly $31,100 to Wade Davies, a Knoxville attorney who specializes in criminal defense and white-collar investigations. When reached by phone Friday, Davies told Knox News there is no pending litigation regarding Duncan. He declined to comment further.

Duncan paid another $18,500 to David Eldridge of Eldridge & Blakney, a firm that specializes in criminal defense and civil litigation. Eldridge declined to comment for this story. Heidi Abegg of Washington, D.C.’s Webster, Chamberlain and Bean was paid $6,500. She also declined to comment.

Knox News was unable to reach the other lawyers with listed expenses, but they include:

  • $27,600 (numbers are rounded) to London and Amburn, a firm that specializes in a number of areas of the law
  • $17,400 to Ruth Ellis of the Ellis Law Firm
  • $14,300 to Daniel and Gaines, which labels itself “Knoxville’s premier DUI, criminal defense and personal injury law firm”

Craig Holman is a lobbyist for Public Citizen – a left-leaning think tank that focuses on protecting health, safety and democracy – and an expert on lobbying and campaign finance rules. He said the FEC generally allows candidates to use campaign funds for legal fees if they are using them for matters related to their service.

In this way, Holman said, Duncan could be using his campaign funds to help format a defense against charges that he misused campaign funds.

“It’s very circular,” he said.

A number of former staffers – including scheduler Denise Lambert, spokesman Don Walker and office manager Jenny Stansberry told Knox News they were not aware of any such inquiry. Lambert and Stansberry stayed on and now works for Tim Burchett.

JJ Pack, spokesman at Knoxville’s FBI office, would not confirm nor deny such an investigation, per FBI policy.

Read the full story on Knoxville News Sentinel.