Loopholes weaken campaign disclosure law

Staff Writer

A lack of accountability and loopholes in state law allow candidates for local offices in the Aug. 6 primaries to avoid punishment for missing campaign finance disclosure deadlines, punishment that can include fines, jail time and a ban from taking office or being pa

Eleven of 33 local candidates in Clay County failed to file required disclosures by the June 10 deadline. Some also didn’t file by the first May 10 deadline.

State law classifies that as a misdemeanor punishable by up to $3,000 in fines and six months in jail. But the law doesn’t specify who is responsible for filing those charges or how.

While the Secretary of State’s office, the official keeper of elections in the state, is required to keep track of legislative candidates who miss filing deadlines and to report those violators to the state Ethics Commission, the law sets out no such reporting requirement for candidates for local office.

“We just collect the forms and keep them. We aren’t required to file them with the Secretary of State or any other office. It’s a flaw in the law,” explained Circuit Court Clerk Bob Harrell, whose office oversees county elections and is in charge of collecting the financial disclosure forms filed by local candidates.

Candidates are given a thick booklet with the rules and requirements when they pick up qualifying papers. All the regulations and the laws also are on the Secretary of State’s website.

Circuit Court clerks aren’t required to remind candidates or to call them about filing. And most don’t, according to a survey of several clerks in the region.

“They are told the law and they should know the law. If you call them once, they’ll expect it every time and then use it as an excuse. These are grown men and women,” said one clerk.

Leah Rupp Smith, spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office, agreed the law may have an omission.

“We send the Ethics Commission a list of state candidates as required and they send out letters and handle penalties. But I understand your question,” she said about the lack of a reporting mechanism for local candidates.

By law, the disclosure forms were required May 10 and June 10. Another is required July 10, July 30, Aug. 20, Oct. 10, Oct. 29, and Nov. 19. The forms must be filed even if candidates spent and received no money or are running unopposed.

Expenditures and contributions of $200 or more must be detailed. Those of less than $200 simply have to be reported.

If the Ethics Commission receives a complaint concerning local candidates, it can take action.

In the case of legislative candidates which are required to be reported by the Secretary of State, the Ethics Commission regularly sends out enforcement letters after receiving notice from the Secretary of State. Those letters include fines of $50 a day up to $500 for the days the reports are late.
Candidates can appeal, but seldom does the Ethics Commission grant waivers.

While the lack of reporting from the local level to the state level for enforcement is one loophole in the law, another is a clause that allows candidates to file their forms at any time, regardless of how late, and be excused from at least some of the sanctions.

The law — Miss. Code Ann. § 23-15-811 § 23-15-811 — for local candidates states:

(a) Any candidate or any other person who willfully violates the provisions and prohibitions of this article shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be punished by a fine in a sum not to exceed Three Thousand Dollars ($3,000.00) or imprisoned for not longer than six (6) months or by both fine and imprisonment.

(b) In addition to the penalties provided in subsection (a) of this section and Chapter 13, Title 97, Mississippi Code of 1972, any candidate or political committee which is required to file a statement or report and fails to file the statement or report on the date it is due may be compelled to file the statement or report by an action in the nature of a mandamus brought by the Mississippi Ethics Commission.

(c) No candidate shall be certified as nominated for election or as elected to office until he or she files all reports required by this article that are due as of the date of certification.

(d) No candidate who is elected to office shall receive any salary or other remuneration for the office until he or she files all reports required by this article that are due as of the date the salary or remuneration is payable.

(e) In the event that a candidate fails to timely file any report required pursuant to this article but subsequently files a report or reports containing all of the information required to be reported, the candidate shall not be subject to the sanctions of subsections (c) and (d) of this section.

The 11 candidates for local office in Clay County who missed the latest deadline are James Taggart for circuit clerk, Michael Collier for tax assessor, Marion McClenton for District 1 supervisor, Rashaud Greenlee and Daryl Thomas for District 2 supervisor, Heath Donahoo for District 3 supervisor, Shelton Deanes for District 4 supervisor, Joe Chandler and Bill Tribble for District 5 supervisor, Sherman Ivy for District 1 constable and Lewis Stafford for District 2 constable.