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Local Politicians Owe $1.3M in Campaign Fines

Thursday, February 14, 2013

 

Candidates for local and state office have been slammed with over $1.3 million in fines for failing to file campaign finance reports or submitting them late, state records show.

Violators include a number of candidates for the General Assembly, a former candidate for Attorney General, at least three Providence city councilmen, and several political action groups, such as the lobbying arm for a top local law firm, Moses and Afonso, the National Organization for Marriage, and the state political action committee for the Fraternal Order of Police.

Top offenders are former state Senate candidates Patrick McDonald and Michael Rollins, former state rep candidate Kevin Johnston, and former state Senator John Celona, who served more than two years in prison on federal corruption charges. All four have fines in excess of six figures. (See below table for the top 30 violators.)

Some kinds of candidates are represented more than others on the list. “This list is a black eye for the Providence City Council,” John Marion from Common Cause said, adding that, “the General Assembly, the body that writes the campaign finance laws, is represented far too much on this list.”

In all, 237 political action committees and candidates for a range of local and state offices owe a total of $1,356,050 according to Rhode Island Board of Elections records obtained by GoLocalProv.

Watchdog: system needs fixing

When GoLocalProv first reported on the fines in 2011, they amounted to $993,000. Now, the total has swelled to $1.3 million.

Marion expressed dismay over the latest figures. “It’s quite simply amazing to me that this list gets longer and longer and the amount keeps getting larger and larger,” he said.

“This is particularly disconcerting at a time of fiscal crisis, which the state is clearly in,” he added.

Ultimately, Marion said it’s voters, not state coffers, that suffer. “In the big picture, if politicians are not properly following the campaign law then the public will never know who is contributing to their campaigns,” Marion said. “Without that disclosure the public cannot hold them truly accountable in elections.”

Campaign finance reports are normally due at least once a quarter, even in non-election years. In election years, the deadlines change somewhat, depending on whether there is a primary in the race and the date of the election.

Late reports incur a $25 fee plus an additional late fee of $2 a day. Candidates who do not win office and do not necessarily plan a future campaign must nonetheless continue to file reports until they close their accounts with the Board of Elections, according to Richard Thornton, the Director of Campaign Finance.

State records show that a number of the top debts are from repeat offenders. McDonald hasn’t filed a report with the Board of Election in the decade since he ran for state Senate. Celona stopped submitting reports in 2004. Daniel Grzych has been tardy on 20 reports since 2004, but that hasn’t stopped him from running for state rep in every election since then.

Candidates can continue to fundraise and run for office, despite having delinquent accounts, according to Thornton.

Marion is calling for stepped up enforcement. “Common Cause needs to redouble our efforts to examine why the Board of Elections has been unable to enforce our campaign finance laws, examining the effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s effort to prevent lobbyists from registering once they are lapsed in their reports, as well as how other states handle outstanding fines,” he said.

State took ten candidates to court

Thornton said the state elections board sends out non-compliance notices for each late report. If that fails to get a response, the board issues a second notice. “Phone calls are made and e-mails sent in an effort to get the filer to comply,” Thornton said. “This process is repeated for each report due from a filer, but not filed.”

Candidates can seek an administrative appeal for penalties less than $5,000. After that, they can take their case to the Board of Elections at a public hearing. Amounts over $5,000 go straight to the board.

In cases where a filer is “non-responsive over an extended period” Thornton said the board may file a complaint in Superior Court, seeking a judgment for uncollected penalties and fees.

The board has done so recently with at least ten candidates, according to Thornton. Six cases have ended in a court judgment against the candidate. (See below list.)

The rest have been resolved, are heading towards settlement, or have pending hearings: Newport Councilman Stephen Coyne settled a year ago, agreeing to pay the full amount that he owed, $5,348, which the board has received. An attorney for Frederick Cavallaro, who ran for Barrington Town Council, is seeking a settlement. And hearings have been set for this spring in the cases against Grzych and Kevin Johnston, a state rep candidate from East Providence.

Candidate explanations vary

Candidates contacted for comment gave a wide range of explanation for why they have failed to file timely campaign finance reports with the state.

One candidate was unaware of the specifics of the rules. Another simply fell behind and is trying to catch up. A third missed a report because of a fire and then refused to file any more reports because he says the state wouldn’t help him in his time of need.

One of the candidates, Providence city Councilman Kevin Jackson, said he wasn’t trying to hide anything in not filing reports. He said he self-funds his campaigns and hasn’t had a fundraiser in about six years. Jackson said he needs to close down his campaign account with the election board, making future finance reports unnecessary.

As for the court judgment of $23,150 that has already been rendered against him, Jackson said he planned to take legal action to contest it. “It should not be what they’re saying,” Jackson said. “Absolutely not.”

In Cranston, city council candidate Donald Roach said he just fell behind on the reports.

“Basically, it’s my fault for getting so behind. I got behind on two reports and just have not caught up,” said Roach, who is a MINDSETTER™ for GoLocalProv. “I plan to work with the Board of Elections over the next couple of months to resolve the issue. I had a great experience running in 2010 and I want to rectify this situation.”

Candidate refused to file as a form of protest

But a third candidate had a far more complicated explanation. Michael Rollins, who has run for a number of offices in North Providence, said he failed to file a report in 2004 because of a fire in his apartment building. In fact, Rollins said he had just sat down to begin work on the report when the fire alarm sounded.

Rollins said that because he was locked out of his building for a week, he asked for the Board of Elections staff for an extension. When his request was refused, he said he stopped filing future reports in protest, even as he continued to run for other offices in subsequent elections.

“They could have prevented everything by working with me and helping me back in ’04,” Rollins said.

He says he asked the Board of Elections, then the state Attorney General, to take him to court so he could plead his case before a jury. So far, neither agency has granted the request, Rollins said.

Ultimately, he lays blame at the feet of the General Assembly, which passed the law on campaign finance reporting. Rollins said such laws aren’t about transparency, but instead stifle competition as an incumbency-protection measure. He said such laws are blatantly unconstitutional because they violate First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.

State records show Rollins currently owing $104,540. But he says he can’t even afford the $200 to $300 per-hour fees attorneys want to charge him to fight the case in court.

“I couldn’t pay up if I wanted to. It’s a ridiculous amount of money to begin with,” Rollins said.

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