Tennessee State Rep. Rick Staples, who sponsored the bill that eventually became the Volunteer State’s sports betting law, is under scrutiny from TN authorities right now. The inquiry is into his usage of campaign funds, some of which may have included inappropriate charges related to “research” of sports betting.
According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, Staples charged the expenses to his campaign not long after the bill became law. If the allegations of misuse are true, Staples could face several consequences.
Detailing the allegations against Rep. Rick Staples
Among expenses pertaining to “unexplained travel” last year are $1,500 in food and beverages in Las Vegas. The charges came less than two weeks after TN enacted Staples’ bill.
Staples originally marked the charges as a campaign expense for “sports betting research.” So far, Staples has provided no other explanation.
Staples now has an opportunity to provide that explanation, however. A state office that audits lawmakers has requested answers from Staples on those and several other charges last year.
If Staples can demonstrate why the charges were necessary to help him win an election or help further his office, that should satisfy the auditors. Such audits are not uncommon.
It’s still a bad optic for the lawmaker, however. Staples may have furthered the bad narrative by refusing to answer any of 23 questions in a letter sent by the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
Staples also recently had to hire a new treasurer for his campaign. His former treasurer, who had worked for him since 2016, resigned at the end of January.
Staples has declined to provide any details on that resignation. He will have to provide some explanation for the $1,500 charge, however.
What will happen if Staples can’t satisfy auditors
If Staples’ answers aren’t satisfactory for the auditors, they could find him in violation of federal and state laws. There are a few possibilities at that point.
The state will likely ask Staples to repay the campaign for the expenses out of his personal income. At that point, he will also have to adjust his documents to show that reimbursement.
Staples does have an option to appeal a finding that he was in violation. Failing that, he would be forced to repay his campaign for the charges.
There is more concern for Staples than just the disputed charges, however. There is also the court of public opinion at stake, especially among his constituents.
Questions that Staples’ constituents may have
Staples may not have done himself any favors by declining response to the media’s questioning. At the very least, it creates the impression that he is hiding something.
On top of that, there is the question of what exactly he needed to go to Las Vegas to research. At that point, his bill was already enacted and the future of legal sports betting in Tennessee put in the hands of other lawmakers.
While there’s no hard evidence to suggest any wrongdoing at this point, the timing suggests that Staples may have been enjoying some perks with a casino or sportsbook operator. Successfully pushing a gambling bill through in a state where there was no legal gambling definitely would have put Staples on such companies’ radars.
The timing of this inquiry may be bad for the state overall. As the process of finalizing regulations for sportsbooks rolls on, there is some debate over whether the state lottery or the government-appointed sports betting council should hold the power to regulate sportsbooks.
If the allegations of improper spending by Staples are true, then that could further complicate the process that is already pushing a year since legalization. What could be a bad optic for Staples could be an even worse look for the future of legal sports betting in Tennessee.