Sunday, May 30, 2010
Thousands in election fines go uncollected
By Chad Selweski, Macomb Daily Staff Writer
More than five dozen former Macomb County political candidates and committees have thumbed their nose at a state law — despite getting hit with thousands of dollars in fines — that requires disclosure of their campaign contributors.
These candidates failed to follow the Michigan campaign finance law and then ignored notices that they must pay fines for their transgressions. The scofflaws, including some current and former officeholders, owe the county a combined $69,175. Some ignored deadlines and filed late; some never filed at all.
"This is about transparency for the public, so people have an opportunity to see who is donating to who. This allows people to
'follow the money,' " said county Clerk Carmella Sabaugh. "If some people are giving a lot of money then maybe they want favors in return."
In Macomb County, the 65 violators range from political neophytes who never understood the campaign system to those who have brazenly ignored the law, in some cases for several years. Many ex-candidates have run numerous times or they have kept their campaign committee active in the hopes of running again in the future.
Among those on the delinquency list are two current elected officials, county Commissioner Irene Kepler, a Roseville Democrat who is not seeking re-election, and Harrison Township Treasurer Darrin York, who will be up for re-election in 2012.
York is one of three on the list who has served office in a financial capacity, yet was unable to complete the basic bookkeeping duties under the state's 1976 campaign finance law. In addition to York, the scofflaws include former Warren city treasurer Marilyn Marchwinski-Marrocco and John W. Smith, who was the appointed deputy county treasurer for many years.
Other onetime elected officials on the list are former Warren councilman Chuck Busse, former Sterling Heights councilman Steve Rice and former Harrison Township supervisor Mark Knowles.
One group known as Citizens for Ethical Government, run by Michael Rice of Harrison Township, apparently didn't appreciate the ethics of the campaign reporting system. They were eventually badgered into filing their 2008 post-primary documentation, but they have yet to pay the $150 fine for complying six days after the deadline.
Actually, candidates who don't follow the law are sent a letter of warning and given an additional 60 days to pay their debt before they are declared delinquent.
According to state law, candidates and committees face fines of $25 a day, up to a maximum of $500, when they fail to file a report that discloses their campaign contributions and expenditures. Those that raise more than $10,000 in contributions face a maximum penalty of $1,000. Reports are required at least annually, though up to four filings per year are necessary in the middle of an election campaign.
When a candidate reaches the maximum fine and still hasn't filed a report, the matter is referred to the county Treasurer's Office for collection of the fees and the worst offenders are taken to court by the Corporation Counsel. But critics say enforcement is poor because the county has limited authority, and candidates often ignore the warnings issued.
In many cases, the violators facing the maximum fine are those who have refused to file any paperwork that reveals who funded their campaigns. In some cases, the former candidates have not filed reports for years.
These scofflaws are reluctant to talk about their debts, and some have virtually disappeared. Two longtime delinquents, William Hertel of Fraser and Robert Patten of Clinton Township, owe fines dating back to 2004, the year they both ran for county commissioner. But authorities have failed to locate them.
Bob Gibson, who served briefly as a county commissioner from Harrison Township, was eventually located in Colorado, but still has not paid the $1,500 he owes the county.
One political group associated with some of the most important elections in Macomb County history is also on the list of violators. Protect Our Future-Macomb, which opposed the new county charter in the 2008 and 2009 elections, failed to pay late filing fees starting two years ago. The group was formed by Nathan Hlavin of Macomb Township, who eventually faded from the political scene. The group still owes $975 in fines but lists its cash on hand as $13.50.
The state's top watchdog on campaign finance issues said that the reporting requirements begin to break down when candidates refuse to comply.
"This (list) helps citizens to get a quick handle on who is playing by the rules and who is not," said Rich Robinson, executive director of the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network. "This should be useful information to voters as they evaluate candidates for public office."
No one on the Macomb County list is running for office in the upcoming 2010 elections.
Nonetheless, the state does not bump a candidate off the ballot, even after the candidate signs a required affidavit that says they do not owe any filing fees.
According to state election law, filing a false candidate affidavit is punishable by a fine up to $1,000 or imprisonment for up to five years, or both. But penalties are rarely assessed.
In Macomb County, delinquent candidates became an issue in 2006 when the number grew to 41. Sabaugh responded by putting the list on her website, clerk.macombgov.org, where it remains available.
The Macomb County Clerk's Office will hold a workshop for candidates this week that will help them understand campaign finance laws. The forum will be held Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Mount Clemens Public Library, 150 Cass Ave., just west of Gratiot. For more information, call (586) 469-5122.