How wealthy donors like Jim Gray legally gave even more to Democratic Party during Beshear’s campaign

Former Lexington mayor gave $100,000

by Tom Loftus, Kentucky Lantern

FRANKFORT — Ahead of  last month’s governor’s race, London Mayor Randall Weddle and other Kentuckians gave big to a type of political committee that allows wealthy donors to make massive legal contributions. 

Weddle, whose earlier excess contributions to Gov. Andy Beshear’s reelection effort had drawn regulatory scrutiny, contributed $550,000 on Oct. 3 to a national Democratic Party committee known as the Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund (DGVF).

The donation is listed in a report filed recently with the Federal Election Commission.

Weddle’s was by far the largest contribution reported by the DGVF during the general election season, but within the legal limits of how much a person can give to such a committee.

It was one of 25 contributions this fund received during the general election season from some of Beshear’s most loyal supporters and largest donors.

An examination of reports filed by Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund and posted on the FEC website shows that — while the fund is a major national Democratic political committee that gets contributions from across the country — its only donors since late July were Kentuckians and a couple out-of-state people who have been donors to Beshear’s campaign.     

 Jim Gray

Other donors to the fund include Steve Wilson, the founder of 21C Museum Hotels, who gave $200,000; Jim Gray, secretary of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, who gave $100,000; and Louisville philanthropist and major Democratic donor Christina Lee Brown, who gave $100,000.

Perhaps the only surprising donor in DGVF’s recent reports is John Calipari, the University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach who does not have a history as a large political donor. The fund reported that Calipari donated $50,000 on Oct. 19, according to the FEC website.

Together,  25 individuals — mostly Kentuckians plus a few out-of-state donors to Beshear — are listed as donating $1.65 million to Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund between July 25 and Oct. 31.

The reports show that Weddle, a registered Republican who until recently had been a donor to Republicans, has not been deterred from showing his enthusiasm for Beshear and other Democrats by the controversy over his apparent excess contributions to Beshear’s campaign and the Kentucky Democratic Party. The controversy is rooted in an April report by Kentucky Lantern that said Weddle’s family and associates combined to give more than $305,500 to the Kentucky Democratic Party and Beshear’s campaign. Beshear’s campaign manager initially defended the contributions, but later revealed that $202,000 of those contributions were all made on Weddle’s credit card. In October the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance began a civil investigation of that matter.

Weddle did not return a phone message left at the London mayor’s office on Monday. And state and national Democratic Party officials shed no light on why Weddle and so many Beshear supporters gave to the Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund during the general election season.

The Kentucky Democratic Party did not return a phone call or respond to an emailed list of questions Monday from Kentucky Lantern. And the Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund did not respond to a phone call and email sent to it by Kentucky Lantern on Monday.

Calipari was not available for comment, said UK spokesman Jay Blanton.

U.S. Supreme Court loosened restrictions

State and federal laws put limits on the amount of money any person can give to most political committees. For instance, Kentucky law sets a $2,100 cap on how much a person can give to a candidate for governor per election. Individuals are limited to giving no more than $15,000 a year to a state political party — $10,000 to the state party committee registered with the FEC, plus $5,000 to the state party committee regulated by the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund is a large “joint fundraising committee” based in Washington and first registered with the FEC in 2017 to raise money for the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Party committees in the 50 states and District of Columbia. Because of the way it is structured, the limit on individual contributions  is extremely high. A person may give up to the $41,300 annual limit on contributions to the Democratic National Committee, plus the $10,000 allowed in contributions to each state committee and the District of Columbia, according to the FEC’s press office.

That would place the limit at $551,300 per year. Weddle’s contribution was just under that limit.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Committee, in 2014 loosened restrictions on how much money could flow into joint fundraising committees such as the Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund. Near the time of its creation, the Washington-based watchdog group Issue One criticized this type of political committee as one that would allow wealthy donors undue influence by making massive, legal political contributions. “The Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund seems to be drawing a roadmap for how wealthy people can give more than half a million dollars a year in a single check to the political party of their choice,” an Issue One official said at the time.

The fund has reported raising $12.3 million this year through Oct. 31 and transferring  nearly $7 million of that to the Democratic National Committee. The rest, other than some expenses, was disbursed to the state party organizations. The vast majority of that money was raised and distributed early this year, and the only contributions DGVF received since July 25 (other than a handful of contributions of $50 or less) was the $1.65 million from Kentuckians and Beshear supporters.

Here, according to reports posted on FEC website, are those contributions:

  • Randall Weddle, London, mayor of London, $550,000
  • Steve Wilson, Louisville, founder of 21C Museum Hotels, $200,000
  • James P. Gray II, Lexington, Kentucky Transportation Cabinet secretary, $100,000
  • Christina Lee Brown, Louisville, $100,000
  • William Seale, Annapolis, Maryland, $100,000
  • Lisa Lourie, Wellington, Florida, owner, Spy Coast Farm, $100,000       
  • Charlie O’Connor, Versailles, Ashford Stud, $51,625
  • Brooke Brown Barzun, Louisville, philanthropist, $50,000
  • Eleanor Bingham Miller, Louisville, TV/video producer, $50,000
  • Augusta Brown Holland, Louisville, urban planner, $50,000
  • John Calipari, Lexington, University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach, $50,000
  • Nachiketa Bhatt, Prospect, Freedom Adult Day Care, $35,000
  • Barbara Banke, Geyserville, California, Kendall-Jackson Winery, $32,900
  • Samuel A.B. Boone, Lexington, Sterling Materials, $25,000
  • Mark Swartz, Winchester, road contractor, $25,000
  • Mike Swartz, Olympia, Mike Swartz Construction, $25,000
  • Gregory Bubalo, Prospect, attorney, $20,650
  • Edward Britt Brockman, Louisville, John Kenyon Eye Institute, $20,000
  • Scott Hagan, Louisville, Hagan Properties, $15,000
  • Judith Hanekamp, Masonic Home, retired, $15,000
  • Robert D. Vance, Maysville, retired, $15,000
  • Jennifer Collins, Manchester, retired, $10,000
  • John Dougherty, Louisville, retired, $5,162
  • McKinnley Morgan, Hyden, attorney, $5,000
  • William Landes, Goshen, Hermitage Farm, $500

The Democratic National Committee was a major source of funds for the Kentucky Democratic Party this year. Reports filed by the KDP show it received more than $3.2 million in transfers from the Democratic National Committee, with the vast majority of that transferred in the six weeks before the Nov. 7 Kentucky election.

Weddle refunded $202,000 given to Beshear campaign, party

Weddle is a co-founder of WB Transport which is engaged in the reverse logistic business — the shipping, storing and reselling of merchandise that has been returned to retailers by buyers. On April 17, Kentucky Lantern reported that Weddle family members and associates (though not Randall Weddle himself) had combined to give the  biggest batch of contributions to support Beshear’s reelection. The 19 Weddle-related donors —  none of whom had made big political contributions before — were listed in reports as giving a combined amount of more than $305,500 to Beshear’s campaign and party. 

 Randall Weddle, then a candidate for London mayor, listens as Gov. Andy Beshear helps celebrate the opening of WB Transport’s new warehouse in April 2022. (Screenshot with permission of WYMT)

Beshear and the Democratic Party initially defended the contributions, noting that each was within the limit allowed by law and insisting that no favors are ever granted in exchange for a contribution.

But on June 19 the Beshear’s campaign manager announced that Weddle had informed the campaign that $202,000 in contributions from Weddle relatives and associates to the party and Beshear campaign were all made on a credit card belonging to Randall and Victoria Weddle. These were excess contributions, he said, and were refunded by the party and Beshear campaign.

A longstanding opinion of the Kentucky Executive Branch Ethics Commission bars  candidates from using their elected  offices to investigate an election opponent, so Attorney General Daniel Cameron, Beshear’s Republican opponent, was barred from investigating the matter. Cameron’s office asked the FBI to investigate.

The FBI has declined to comment on whether it is investigating.

But in late October the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance initiated an investigation of the Weddle contributions. If it concludes that someone knowingly violated state campaign finance laws, the registry can impose a fine of $5,000 per violation.

Since the controversy surfaced in the spring Weddle has become a prolific donor —  primarily, but not exclusively, to Democratic committees. Websites of the election registry, the FEC and the IRS, show that Randall Weddle and his wife Victoria Weddle gave:

  • $75,000 on May 10 to the Democratic Governors Association, which was funding a super PAC supporting Beshear. 
  • $2,000 on June 20 to the campaign of Democrat Pamela Stevenson for attorney general.  
  • $100,000 on June 22 to the Democratic Attorneys General Association, which was funding a super PAC supporting Stevenson
  • $25,000 on Sept. 6 to the National Republican Congressional Committee.
  • $25,000 on Sept. 19 to the National Republican Congressional Committee.
  • $550,000 on Oct. 3 to the Democratic Grassroots Victory Committee.
  • $40,000 on Oct. 23 to DAGA Kentucky People’s Lawyer Project, the super PAC supporting Stevenson.

Top photo:  Gov. Andy Beshear reaches out to a supporter at his victory party at Old Forrester’s Paristown Hall in Louisville, Nov. 7, 2023. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Austin Anthony)