Campaign Disclosure System Alert: Rumors we’re hearing

3
Jul

Campaign Disclosure System Alert: Rumors we’re hearing

We’re hearing multiple reports that the campaign disclosure system at the State Ethics Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission is bogging down under load and that it’s becoming difficult to deal with. This is not the first time this has happened.

Local officials facing hundreds or even thousands of dollars in fines for missing one or more of the state’s deadlines for filing 2011 campaign and personal financial reports may get a reprieve.Patrick Millsaps, a Camilla attorney who chairs the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, told the Barrow Journal this week that the commission will consider forgiving most or all late fees for local officials this year.This is the first time that Georgia’s locally elected officials – from city council members to county commissioners to school board members – have been required by the Georgia General Assembly to submit campaign and personal financial information to the state ethics office rather than to local elections offices or city clerks.The commission’s website shows that several Barrow County office-holders already are facing hefty fines for supposedly missing the first filing deadline in March. And some also have been late with either their June 30 campaign finance reports or their separate personal financial disclosure forms that were due July 1.

However, Millsaps acknowledged this week that the thousands of paper forms mailed by local officials across Georgia have overwhelmed the small number of state employees working for the commission.At this point the plan is to forgive the June 30 and July 1 late fees primarily because of the failure of the computer system.

We’re working on tomorrow’s edition of the morning news to include some suggestions, but here are are current thoughts:

1. There are two problems you face as a candidate who is having trouble filing your disclosures due to technical problems beyond your control. The first is the legal problem that you are likely to be fined if you do not file timely. The second is the PR problem caused by the untimely filing, fine, and complaint that may be lodged by an opponent. Lawyers and technical experts help with the first problem; political consultants help with the second. Email me if you want some specific advice on the second problem. I might also have some suggestions on whom to speak with regarding the first problem.

2. Documentation is your best defense. Screenshots are helpful. Printing a paper copy and mailing it with a return receipt requested to the Commission can help you establish that you made your best effort to comply, and that but for the technical issues, you were prepared to file.

3. Consider trying the system at off-hours. During the Peachtree Road Race or evening fireworks tomorrow, or at 4 AM might be easier to deal with if fewer people are logging in and working on their disclosures.

4. Don’t leave it to the last minute. If anything, problems caused by too many people logged in will get worse, not better, as the end of the grace period nears.

I am not a lawyer and none of the above is legal advice. If you’re looking for free legal advice on the internet, you may have deeper problems than your campaign disclosure filing.

Govern yourselves accordingly.

[Just for fun, here are a couple of other articles on the ongoing issue that appears to be raising its head again.]

Tybee Island candidates fined for late filing

Candidates throughout the state have experienced problems filing, said Amy Henderson, spokesperson for the Georgia Municipal Association. The issues are a result of state computer glitches, candidates having to learn a new process and the understaffed commission, Henderson said.

The commission is being overwhelmed by filers and the number of questions they are getting, Henderson said.

“Sometimes (candidates) have to wait weeks,” she said. “Then they might not get an answer until that deadline has passed.”

Executive Director Holly LaBerge said the commission, which has 11 employees handling about 6,000 filers, has been inundated with complaints similar to those coming from Tybee. There have been errors on the commission’s end, but 99 percent of the reports were filed incorrectly, if they were filed at all, LaBerge said. The candidates are too used to having the city clerk send the reports for them, she said.

LaBerge insisted the candidates were being sent their log-in codes.

“They‘re getting them,” she said. “Maybe they’re going into a spam folder.”

Some candidates have also been using incorrect passwords, since separate codes are used for the disclosure and contribution reports, LaBerge said.

“The passwords are not interchangeable,” she said.

The candidates’ appeals will be submitted to the commission for consideration at their next meeting, for which a date has not yet been set, LaBerge said.

LaBerge could not be reached Friday to find out why the fines has been reduced.

Candidates late, confused on filing requirements

Schulz said the Commission did not send her PIN number required for her to file electronically until July 5, the date she filed.

“In November 2010, all elected officials were required to register for electronic filing and begin filing electronically directly with the state. I submitted the proper paperwork in 2010 and waited for my PIN,” Schulz said. Schulz provided an email showing that she did not receive the PIN until July 5, 2011, the day she filed.

“Prior to receiving the PIN, I contacted State Ethics to inquire about why I had not received the PIN (some of my fellow commissioners had received theirs while others had not). When I contacted State Ethics, I was told that due to the difficulties that State Ethics was having with the conversion to electronic filing and the July 4th holiday, there would be no penalties. I have never been informed that I was penalized.”

Sheriff Ezell Brown also is listed as owing late fees for documentation due July 1, 2011. But the sheriff provided the Citizen with documentation showing that the Commission did not send him his PIN until July 20. Brown said he has been assured the late fees will be waived. Neither Brown nor Schulz have any other late filings reported on the website prior to 2011.

“As long as it was handled locally and we were able to walk in those documents, we never, ever had a problem,” Brown said. “But when they switched over to the (Georgia Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission) handling it, it turned into a problematic situation. Not just here — I’ve talked to several sheriffs throughout the state and other public officers.”

Holly LaBerge, executive secretary of the Commission, refused to comment for this story.

A spokeswoman for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia confirmed that the problem for candidates is a statewide issue.

“It definitely is a statewide problem. We don’t know what resolutions or outcomes they’ve reached or how they’re dealing with people on that basis,” said ACCG spokeswoman Beth Brown.

According to the Commission website, Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan owes $900 in late filing fees dating back to 2008.

“I do not believe that all of these late fees are due, they changed my password and the reports have not transferred. I am working to get this corrected and will pay what is due at that time,” Morgan said.

Morgan’s Democratic opposition, Marcus Jordan, and Republican Keith Ellis are listed as being in compliance, as are both Republican District 1 candidates, John Douglas and John Strauss.

Several new candidates for office are listed on the site as having not filed a personal financial disclosure report within 15 days of qualifying as required. But several said they’ve filed the documentation via certified mail. Others said they weren’t aware of the requirement to file.

District 3 BOC Republican candidate Kevin Wade and Democratic candidate Tony Flanagan are in violation, according to the website, although Wade said he sent the documentation by certified mail last week.

In District 5, only two of six candidates — Republicans Wesley Dowdy and Levie Maddox — are listed as having filed the appropriate document.

Republican Ronnie Dimsdale said he has filed the report via certified mail, even though the Commission website states there are no reports by him on file. There were also no filings listed by District 5 Democratic candidates Phil Johnson and Marcello Banes. On Tuesday, Phil Johnson’s campaign manager said Johnson had filed his report and paid the associated late fee. On Republican Jared Rutberg said he was not aware of the requirement to file and that he hand-delivered the appropriate documentation to the Commission Thursday.

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