Forget questions about the Trumps—a Tennessee politician has been lavishing the funds from his campaign coffers on family members long before the first family moved into the White House.
Rep. Jimmy Duncan Jr., a Republican congressman who represents Knoxville, has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign money into his family members and their businesses since at least 2013, campaign finance filings first reported by the Knoxville News-Sentinel reveal. The payments included hundreds of thousands to an apparently non-existent company registered to Duncan’s son, who previously pleaded guilty to a felony relating to the alleged misappropriation of government funds.
The Duncans are a Tennessee political dynasty. Patriarch John Duncan Sr. first took local office in 1959, when he won a special election to replace Knoxville’s deceased mayor. In 1965, Duncan Sr. made the leap to Congress, representing Tennessee’s second district until his death in 1988. His son, Duncan Jr. won a special election to replace him, and has held the congressional seat with virtually no opposition for nearly three decades. Duncan Jr.’s sister, Becky Duncan Massey, is a member of the Tennessee Senate representing Knoxville and its surrounding county.
Duncan Jr.’s son, John Duncan III, has also been viewed as a political up-and-comer. He was elected Knox County Trustee in 2010. The election was an easy victory for Duncan III, who ran unopposed in the general election, and whose only primary opponent dropped out before the vote.
But shortly after taking office in September 2010, Duncan III allegedly ordered tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses for himself and other employees. The bonuses were purportedly for completing a training program, prosecutor Bill Bright alleged at the time. But seven of the bonus recipients, including Duncan III, allegedly never completed the training. When the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation became involved with the case, Duncan III allegedly told investigators that he hadn’t known he wasn’t allowed to award bonuses for the incomplete training. Three employees claimed otherwise, telling investigators that they had warned Duncan III against the payouts.
On July 2, 2013, Duncan III pleaded guilty to felony official misconduct on the case, and resigned from office without a jury trial. Thirteen days later, he was back on another politician’s payroll: his father’s.
On July 15, Duncan Jr.’s re-election campaign paid Duncan III $3,000, according to Federal Election Commission campaign records. The payments recurred every other week until Nov. 1, when records show the biweekly payments shifted to American Public Strategies. The company was registered on a county level to John J. Duncan less than a month earlier. While both Duncans share the name and middle initial, American Public Strategies was registered to the younger Duncan’s home address.
Payments to American Public Strategies soon increased to $3,500 every other week, and have remained at that rate ever since, FEC filings show. But while American Public Strategies was earning a steady $7,000 a month, its legal standing appeared less stable. Tennessee has no records of American Public Strategies ever being registered with the state, and the company’s county registration (which would have expired within a year, the Nashville Post notes) was never renewed after its 2013 creation.
The $7,000 monthly paychecks raise questions about Duncan Jr.'s compliance with FEC rules, Brendan Fischer, a staff attorney for the Campaign Legal Center said.
"FEC rules specifically say if you’re going to pay a family member for work for the campaign, the family member has to be providing bona fide services, and the amount paid has to be commensurate with the fair market value of the services provided," Fischer told The Daily Beast. "For a congressional candidate in a non-competitive district in Tennessee, it appears the payments to John Duncan III are exceptionally high for the services he’s providing.
"Particularly in a non-election year, it’s difficult to see how there’s a need to pay someone $7,000 a month to engage in campaign activities."
Duncan III did not return The Daily Beast’s request for comment on the company’s registration status. Between the payments to American Public Strategies, and the seven initial payments directly to him, Duncan III has made just short of $300,000 from his father’s campaign. His salary, which hit $84,000 in 2016, is greater than those of all but two of Duncan Jr.’s staffers: the representative’s chief of staff and deputy chief of staff, both of whom have worked in Congress since 2009, according to public records.
In a statement to the News-Sentinel, Duncan III sent a text message, which he attributed to his father.
“Every expenditure from my campaign has been done according to law and in compliance with all pertinent regulations of the Federal Election Commission,” the statement, attributed to Duncan Jr., read. “In the last four years, I have paid my son, John, who has been in charge of my entire political operation doing everything from putting up yard signs and answering campaign calls to conducting polls, giving speeches, and raising funds. He was paid far less than many campaign managers and consultants while doing many things that they would not do.”
But Duncan III is not the only family member on the congressman’s payroll.
Beginning in 2013, Duncan Jr.’s campaign began paying a monthly $600 to “Sage Investment Group,” according to FEC filings. The monthly payments, which continue to this day, are labeled “campaign office: rent expense.” They appear to be the first time Duncan Jr.’s campaign ever listed office space in its FEC filings. The Nashville Post reports that Sage Investment shares a P.O. box with the company JMB Investment LLC, where Duncan Jr.’s son-in-law is one of four partners. That son-in-law has received $350 each month from Duncan Jr.’s campaign since 2011, FEC filings show.
The campaign also shelled out three payments worth a combined $9,100 to Duncan Jr.’s other son, Zane, although he did not receive a regular salary, FEC filings show. At the time of two of those payments Zane Duncan and his wife were running Road to Victory PAC, Duncan Jr.’s political action committee. In every two-year election cycle since 2011, the couple has received $15,000 annually from the PAC—more than it donated in any politician during those cycles. During the 2011-2012 cycle, the PAC only donated to two candidates: $1,000 to a California candidate, and $2,000 to Duncan Jr.’s sister, Becky Duncan Massey, who won her local Tennessee Senate seat that year.
The campaign has also reportedly paid a monthly $750 to Duncan Massey’s daughter, a Texas-based gymnastics teacher in charge of the campaign’s bookkeeping.
"This is all for a congressperson in a noncompetitive district who has not faced a serious challenger for many years," Fischer said. "There does appear to be a pattern of payments to family members that raises the question of whether Congressman Duncan is illegally converting campaign funds to personal use."