State owes politicians and political organizations millions for filing financial reports late or not filing reports at all
More than 100 politicians and political organizations owe the state Board of Elections nearly $5.4 million after failing to file election financial returns or filing them late. However, the authorities recognize that a considerable amount of the fines is irrecoverable.
The amount is growing every quarter, up 9% from a year ago, when fines were about $4.6 million.
Individual fines range from $5 to $514,859. The smallest fines are for those who missed a filing deadline or two, the largest for those who ignored the requirements for years.
“Well over 95% is older debt,” said campaign finance director Richard Thornton. And when the Board of Elections went to court to recover funds, the courts, Thorton has said in the past, have dramatically reduced the fines because they weren’t considered “proportionate.”
The late filing penalty is $25 for each reporting period and $2 per day until the report is filed.
The highest fines are for people who have failed to fill out forms for years or who consistently file them late.
Former Saunderstown State Senator Patrick McDonald tops the list, thanks to the state of $514,859. McDonald’s was found guilty in 2014 of embezzling $164,000 from legal customers. Former state senator John Celona of North Providence, who was convicted of state and federal corruption charges in 2007, is fourth on the list, owing the state $451,328. His last campaign finance record in 2004 showed a campaign fund balance of $55,555. The other two in the top four are Michael James Rollins ($468,209) and Peter M. Russo, Jr. ($457,272).
Individuals may only use campaign funds for their own political campaigns, donate to other candidates, donate to charity, or return funds to donors. The money cannot be used for personal purposes.
John Marion, executive director of Common Cause, acknowledges the difficulty of collecting fines, but believes the council needs to be more aggressive in court.
Thornton said the Board of Elections had reached out “proactively”, notifying politicians and organizations that the filing deadline was approaching and, if they missed it, sending out two notices, the second certified.
“We’re really having success with the bottom end of the roster,” Thornton said. “Five or six years ago, 20 to 25 percent of applications were filed late or didn’t file anything at all. Now it’s less than 10 percent.
There have been a few board audits, during which settlements have been reached with violators.
There are those who believe the state should bar offenders from running for office, but that was voted down by the legislature a few years ago after Governor Gina Raimondo championed the effort.
Thornton said there are people on the list who hold public office. They are at the bottom of the list, but still owe the state for being late or failing to fill out forms. And some have large campaign fund accounts like State Sen. Jean P. Barros, D-Dist. 59 of Pawtucket, Deputy Majority Leader, Vice Chairman of the Municipal Government Committee, Vice Chairman of the Education Committee and Member of the Finance Committee. He owes $216, according to the Dec. 31, 2021 report, while reporting a campaign fund account of $88,315.
Another with a large campaign fund balance is Sen. Thomas Paolino, R-Dist. 17 of Lincoln, North Providence and North Smithfield, deputy minority leader and a member of the finance, education, health and human services, and lottery committees, owes $225, with a fund balance of campaign of $17,152. He was also an unsuccessful candidate in a special election last year for the administration of the city of Lincoln.
To find the full list of fines, visit https://elections.ri.gov/fines/index.phpwhere you can also view past reports on aging fines.