Campaign finance fines rarely collected, often reduced

State has fined candidates $8.8 million, less than 1 percent collected

State officials collect only a sliver of the millions of dollars in fines they levy against local and state candidates who fail to file campaign finance reports on time.

Less than 1 percent of $8.8 million in initial fines against political candidates and committees have been paid in the past three years, an analysis by this newspaper found.

Some politicians simply don’t file reports for months or even years, letting fines accumulate. Others file their reports months or years late and the Ohio Elections Commission then decides to reduce the initial fine — sometimes totaling thousands of dollars — said Philip Richter, the commission’s president.

But when candidates fail to file campaign reports, voters have no way of knowing who’s donating money to campaigns, which is a deciding factor for some voters, said Jocelyn Bucaro, deputy director of the Butler County Board of Elections.

“They’re in violation of the law,” Bucaro said. “If they fail to report that information in a timely fashion the voters may not have that information, which might influence their decision, and, certainly, erode public trust if candidates are not required to disclose (finances).”

Richter, however, says the commission’s main role is not to create a revenue stream for the state.

“We see a variety of people who have high aspirations start to get involved in the political process, but they don’t understand what it means to file a report. They don’t understand what’s involved,” he said.

“Is it equitable to try to get $1 million out of someone who, for good intentions, got into the political environment and didn’t raise any money and didn’t realize they needed to file any campaign finance reports?”

Uncollected fines

County election boards are responsible for sending cases to the Ohio Election Commission when a local candidate or committee doesn’t file a finance report. The Secretary of State’s office does the same for statewide office-holders.

The commission reviews cases and decides whether fines are merited. It can impose daily fines for candidates who don’t file. Typically, fines cost a candidate $25 for every day a report isn’t filed, but fines can reach up to $100 daily.

Small fines, often ranging from $50 to $150, usually are paid quickly, Richter said. But some of the heftiest fines never take hold, often because the commission can reduce fines after candidates file.

“I’m not going to sit here and say we’ve generated an incredible amount of money,” Richter said.

The commission, which has an annual budget of about $550,000, uses fines to help pay for its expenses. Last year, the commission collected $52,400 from either late filings or other campaign violations.

Richter said that once a candidate files a late report, the commission considers a number of factors before deciding how much the candidate or committee should pay. Commission members look at a candidate’s ability to pay and how much money was raised.

A candidate’s experience running for office also is considered. When former Ohio Attorney General and Auditor Jim Petro came before the commission in 2008 for a missed filing, the commission imposed a $5,000 fine.

Conversely, the commission might reduce fines for local candidates who might be running a campaign on their own with fewer funds. The commission, Richter added, also considers how frequently a candidate has campaign finance issues.

For example, Cincinnati School Board member Eve Bolton was reported in March 2013 for failing to file a 2012 annual report and a correction to her 2011 report. The commission slapped her with a $100 daily penalty and Bolton let $96,000 in fines accumulate before she fixed the problem last month.

After Bolton, who could not be reached for comment, filed her report, the commission reconsidered the fines and she ended up paying $170.

“There’s a variety of factors that essentially go into what we end up settling for, but it’s generally much less than the total amount out there because we’re trying to make the consideration that the person did make the effort to come into compliance,” Richter said.

That’s what Lakota Local Schools board member Ray Murray plans to do after being contacted by this newspaper. Murray never filed a 2011 report, state records show. The Butler County Board of Elections in August 2013 referred his case to the state. Since then, he’s racked up daily fees amounting to $26,000 (Richter said that likely would be reduced once he files).

“I’m not sure how the oversight happened,” Murray said in an email.

Murray, who said he hasn’t spent or raised any money for his campaign since 2009, said he submitted the document to the county elections board Friday. Only $253 sat in his campaign account, he said.

‘Just file’

Local election boards say they give candidates plenty of reminders to file their campaign finance reports. Some local candidates who don’t plan to accept or spend more than $2,000 and agree not to accept more than $100 from one person can fill out waivers to avoid filing a report, according to the state.

But Warren County Board of Elections director Brian Sleeth said he tells candidates to file if they’re unsure whether they’ll meet those requirements.

“We tell them up front just to file, even if you don’t think you should, just to make sure you’re covered,” Sleeth said.

He added that the county sends reminder letters to candidates and issues each candidate a welcome packet, which includes election calendar deadlines.

Last year, Warren County had two cases referred to the state that amounted to $200 in fines. Montgomery County’s election board had no cases referred to the state in 2014.

Cuyahoga County has had the most cases — 223 complaints resulting in $4.5 million in fines — during the past three years.

Candidates who haven’t filed continue to get letters about their violations once cases are referred to the state. The commission will schedule meetings with candidates to work out issues.

If they don’t hear back after several months, a candidate might be referred to the Ohio Attorney General’s office, which works to get reports filed and negotiate a deal for fines. That office also sends letters and will put claims to collect on tax refunds, Richter added. Typically, though, fines are negotiated down in those cases, too.

Regardless of fines, Richter said the commission just wants candidates to follow the law: “The commission’s primary focus has always been insuring compliance of the statues.”

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