Mississippi Elected Candidates owe Thousands of Unpaid Campaign Fines | State government

JACKSON • Mississippi politicians and candidates are required by law to file campaign finance reports, which reveal who gives them money and how they spend it – but many of them don’t.

In hundreds of cases since 2018, state-level candidates and elected officials have ignored or neglected this fundamental requirement for transparency. And the vast majority of the time, they didn’t pay their fines, which ranged from $ 50 to $ 500.

The Daily Journal analyzed a list of hundreds of people who failed to file at least one campaign finance report on time, if at all. On file with the Mississippi Ethics Commission, the spreadsheet dates back to early 2018, when new campaign finance reform law came into effect.

Since 2018, unpaid fines for campaign finance have been almost three times as many as those paid. This amounts to real money: Politicians and state candidates extorted nearly $ 150,000 from the state by refusing to pay their fine or not realizing a fine had been imposed.

Only about $ 30,000 in fines have been paid – or waived due to a valid excuse – in the three years.

The law on the financing of electoral campaigns leaves a vacuum in its application

It appears that dozens of officials and candidates never filed their overdue campaign finance reports after being fined, although the exact number is unclear.

The ethics committee imposes the fines, but it has not closely followed who files and ultimately does not table their reports, said executive director Tom Hood.

Another body, the Secretary of State’s office, collects the reports, leading to a confusing process with several apparent gaps in enforcement.

Hood said he doesn’t know why so many Mississippi candidates and officials aren’t paying their fines.

“We’re getting responses that range from, ‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry, here’s my check,’ to this guy who called us a few weeks ago and cursed my coworkers, accusing us of being part of a conspiracy, saying he didn’t know (about the fine) and that he wasn’t going to pay it, with no response, ”Hood said. “A lot of them, there is no answer at all.”

Northeastern Mississippi candidates owe thousands

The Daily Journal identified 13 people from northeastern Mississippi who recently suffered campaign finance fines. Several said they had not received a nice letter. Others said they had since paid.

“This is brand new to me,” said Kegan Coleman, a Calhoun City resident and former Democratic candidate for the District 8 Senate seat, of $ 1,000 in fines for two missing campaign fundraising reports . “We will call the Ethics Commission to discuss it.

“I moved recently,” said Trey Bowman, an Ackerman resident and former Republican candidate for Northern District Transportation Commissioner, who was fined $ 500 for a missing report in 2019. “I don’t say they didn’t send it to me, but it could have been lost in the movement. “

Rep Sam Creekmore, R-New Albany, was fined $ 100 for a late report, but said he should not be on the list because he has since paid it.

Kevin Frye, an Oxford resident and a former Democratic candidate for the District 9 Senate seat, said he also recently paid the commission $ 150 for not filing his 2020 annual campaign report on time. Frye apologized to citizens of the state for the late filing of the report and urged lawmakers to use his $ 150 fine to invest in issues such as early childhood education.

The State reminds candidates to submit their file before the start of fines

Mississippi law requires current candidates and elected officials to file annual reports detailing their fundraising and spending. And during election years, there are more frequent reporting requirements, to ensure transparency and accountability as to who gives and spends money as the races heat up.

The act provides for some leeway and reminders for people to file their reports. Within five days of the declaration deadline, the State Secretariat draws up a list of those who have not filed a complaint, notifies them of their failure and sends the list to the Ethics Commission.

But Scott Colom, who owes $ 50 according to Ethics Commission records, said candidate recalls were handled differently when now-Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann was the Secretary of State.

Under Hosemann, Colom recalls receiving emails from the SOS office reminding him to complete a campaign fundraising form before a fine was imposed on him.

“I don’t remember receiving an email this time,” said Colom, the state’s 16th district attorney.

Regardless of the method of communication used by the office of current Secretary of State Michael Watson, Colom said he would pay the fine if he owed one.

The ethics committee does not begin to impose fines until the 10th day after the due date of the report. Each additional day that a report is late costs an additional $ 50, up to a maximum of $ 500. The commission may waive a fine if the person was unable to file due to a serious medical condition or similar unforeseeable condition. The fines are paid into the general state fund.

State agencies do not communicate on missing reports, levying fines

What if someone doesn’t pay, don’t file their report, or both? Not a lot.

The Ethics Commission is supposed to send the Mississippi Attorney General’s office a list of those who have not paid their fines after 120 days, and the GA can take legal action “to force payment,” according to the law.

But AG spokeswoman Colby Jordan said her office had found no record of the Ethics Commission referrals. Hood said it had been at least a few years since he had sent the list of people who had not paid, and that he was not sure his office had sent one yet.

Hood said the list was not sent to the GA recently because the ethics committee voted to delay the imposition of fines on people for campaign funding violations during the pandemic. Beautiful letters of 2019 and 2020 were sent in mid-May.

State law also states that a candidate, if he wins, cannot take office until he has filed all of his campaign finance reports. But officials for the secretary of state said they could not find any cases, including in previous administrations, where a candidate was not allowed to take office due to his inability to file a report. .

Hood said it was not the Ethics Commission’s job to prevent someone from taking office because he had not filed a report on campaign funding, suggesting it would be the role of Secretary of State.

“I just don’t think we should jump in and tell people what to do if we don’t know we have the power to do it,” Hood said. “If we send a letter to someone saying, ‘You cannot take office,’ then we have to be able to support that with authority to prevent them from taking office.”

Civil servants: the weakness of the campaign finance law at the heart of the problem

This is all on top of a Mississippi campaign finance law that needs to be reworked, Hood said. More electronic filing of reports would help, he said, as would a clearer delineation of duties between the ethics committee and the secretary of state, as well as greater clarity on how the law should. be applied.

“Whatever the legislature wants us to do is fine; we’ll do whatever they want us to do, ”Hood said. “But what we do and how we do it must be clear, and it is not now.”

The secretary of state’s office also recognized that changes were needed in the law.

“Flattening the statutes regarding time limits, consequences and specific tasks of state agencies involved would help us hold candidates and political committees to account and streamline the overall process,” spokeswoman Kendra James wrote in a statement.

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