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Local Politicians Owe $1.1 Million in Campaign Fines

Thursday, January 05, 2012

 

Walk around the Smith Hill neighborhood in Providence and campaign signs can still be found promoting Daniel Grzych’s failed attempts at various political offices, but Board of Elections reports show that despite running for office every term since at least 2002 –he has run for City Council, Mayor, State Representative five times and State Senate twice– the perennial candidate owes the state $53,909 for failing to file campaign finance reports.

Grzych isn’t the only one.

More than 200 current or former elected officials and candidates, including Congressman James Langevin, Cumberland Mayor Dan McKee, various state lawmakers and three Providence City Councilmen, owe the state $1,191,175 in campaign fines, according to the latest statistics provided by the Rhode Island Board of Elections.

While the fines can be as low as $25 for a first-time offender, records show the 20 biggest offenders owe $929,619 (see right), with some candidates having failed to file reports for nearly a decade.

Currently, the five Rhode Islanders who owe the most to the state are former State Senate candidate Patrick T. McDonald ($114,618), former State Senator John Celona ($87,259), Peter M. Russo ($86,833), Michael James Rollins ($77,226) and Kevin L. Johnston ($76,573). Celona served over two years in federal prison for his role in the 2005 Operation Dollar Bill corruption investigation.

Money Goes to General Fund

So how does a candidate for school committee seat or a General Assembly seat rack up thousands of dollars in fines?

According to state Director of Campaign Finance Richard Thornton, the majority of fines assessed by the Board are for delinquent filing of campaign finance reports. Less often, fines may be assessed upon an adverse finding as the result of an investigation.

Any money that is collected by the Board is deposited in the State's Internal Service Fund (general fund). But collecting can be difficult. Many of the largest offenders have continued to pile up fines for years without ever making a dent in the balance they owe.

Asked what effort the state makes to collect the large fines, Thornton said, “the Board of Elections will continue to use its statutory powers to enforce compliance and to collect fines.”

But Rhode Island’s current laws don’t offer much of an incentive for paying back the fines. While lawmakers have talked in the past about proposing legislation that restrict candidates from declaring for office until they pay up, Thornton said that at the present time, “there are no restrictions placed on a candidate's account when he/she is fined. Likewise, he/she can continue to raise or spend campaign funds.”

Board of Elections Filed Suit

One effort the Board of Elections has made to force candidates to make good on what they owe is to file a lawsuit again longtime offenders. Last November, the board made headlines when it announced that it had filed a lawsuit against five individuals it claims owes more than $67,000 in fines dating back to October 2003.

Those candidates include:

Newport Councilman Stephen Coyne, who owed $5348 for failing to file 11 reports dating back to May 2005;

Providence Councilman Kevin Jackson, who owed $23,276 for failing to file 30 reports going back to October 2004;

Former Central Falls Councilman Ricardo Patino, who owed $10,670 dating back to November, 2005;

State Rep candidate Mark Plympton, who owed $17,636 dating back to October 2008; and

Former Providence Councilman Leon Tejada, who owed $10,671 dating back to October 2004.

All five men still appear in the Board of Elections’ latest campaign fine report, which was filed this week.

Robert Kando, the Board’s Executive Director, has always maintained that the state is willing to work with candidates to pay down what they owe. He said the lawsuit was a last ditch effort to convince the candidates to pay their fines.

“We have repeatedly offered to help them submit reports,” Kando said “Filing suit was a last resort. Hopefully they will get the message. There is still time for them to resolve this. Otherwise, they will end up paying a lot more than just their fines.”

New Effort Needs to Be Made

Common Cause Executive Director John Marion said the long list of names raises questions about how the state deals with candidates who fail to file campaign finance reports. Marion pointed to a new lobbying law that took effect this week not let individuals register as lobbyists unless they are caught up on their filings and said the Board of Elections might want to look at that as an example.

Secretary of State Ralph Mollis has called the new lobbying law a win-win for everyone involved

"The new law merely gives them another incentive to align their reporting practices with the spirit and the letter of the law," Mollis said.

Marion said something needs to be done about the growing list of candidates appearing on the campaign fines list.

“I saw the list and it is disconcerting to see the number of names on it,” he said. “I believe the board filed suit a few months ago to begin the process of paring this down, but that's a painstaking process.”

Marion continued: “There has to be a better way to deal with this issue.”
 

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