What roles do leniency and exceptions play for the Oklahoma Ethics Commission when it comes to filing late campaign reports?
An analysis by Oklahoma Gazette found hundreds of candidates for office have either filed late " or not at all " the mandated campaign financial reports. Several were repeat violators of the law, with some owing thousands of dollars in fines.
But in many cases, the violators have been getting free passes by the Ethics Commission staff for various reasons. Some received reprieves because of computer errors when transmitting their reports. Some were able to slide through loopholes in the law. And some simply admitted their mistake and asked for forgiveness.
"I do remember calling the Ethics Commission and asking if I should send in a check for the fine, but they indicated that they were a lot more concerned about reports that were not filed, rather than those that were late," said Democrat Dana Orwig, who has twice run for the state House of Representatives. "They assured me that I would hear from them if any fines were assessed."
Those repercussions start with a fine of $100 a day with a cap of $1,000 for each late report. A fined violator cannot use campaign funds to pay the fine.
But Ethics Commission Chairman John Raley said the commission is not as interested in collecting money as much as getting a candidate's information.
Even when a candidate is clearly in violation of the law " and knows it " there are always ways to get back in compliance. Oklahoma County District Judge Bill Graves said he received a notice from the commission back in February saying he had failed to file a report stemming from his 2002 campaign for state representative.
Although the account was still open, it hardly had any funds, and Graves said he had not spent or raised any money in years for that account. To get around the problem, all Graves had to do was amend a previously filed report and close the account.
Patti Bryant, the commission's principal assistant, said Graves' name should not have been on a late-reporting list the commission sent to Gazette since he filed an amended report.
"That is an example of one of the things I discover in my research when I do late fee assessments, and I wouldn't have assessed him," she said.
That was also the case with Oklahoma County District Judge Vicki Robertson. The judge was listed late for a 2005 report, although she was not required to file a report, Bryant said.
However, Bryant said she has not been able to assess any fines since the end of 2006. Commission officials have said a lack of funding is preventing the hiring of more help and has created a backlog of certain chores.
Gazette analysis found the commission may be missing out on between $100,000 and $200,000 in fines due to the backlog. Between 2005 and 2007, more than $161,000 in fines have been handed out, but only $37,000 has been collected.
Some candidates who have been assessed fines avoided paying or greatly reduced the amount by appealing the fine. Democrat Rhonda Rudd, who ran for the state Senate in 2006, said she appealed her fine and won, resulting in a reduced check she sent to the commission.
For some cases, the commission has decided it's not worth pursuing. Chris Whinery said he received a fine from the commission for a late report from his run for the state Senate in 2004, which the Republican appealed on the basis he did not file the report late.
"They said they didn't get it, and I said, 'Yes, you did,' and we were at an impasse," Whinery said. "They came up with an assessment of a couple of hundred of dollars, and I refused to pay it. Their attorney said, 'Fine, weren't not going to collect the money.' They said I would have to pay it if I want to run for office again."
During the investigation, several people said they would appeal any fine the commission assessed them. Former Republican Rep. Doug Miller was term-limited in 2006 but still has an open campaign account. He was notified of missing a reporting deadline last year.
"If I received a fine, I would probably appeal based on the fact there is no activity in my report, and I'm term-limited," he said. "Scott Cooper