Alabama Sec. of State: ‘Why do we pass ethics laws and employ an ethics commission if we do not intend to enforce the rule of law?’
In the 2015 Alabama Legislative Session, the Legislature passed legislation that required all county candidates and political action committees running for public office to file campaign finance reports with the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office.
The 2015 legislation did not change the requirement for all state candidates to file with the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office. This 2015 filing process was to be accomplished through the electronic filing portal made available by the Secretary of State at this link.
This legislation gave candidates until the 2018 election cycle to become familiar with the law. Beginning with the 2018 election cycle, the Secretary of State’s Office was required to issue civil penalties to candidates who did not meet the campaign finance filing requirements. Those who received a civil penalty can either pay a civil fine or appeal to the Alabama Ethics Commission.
The review and appeal process was put in place to allow for expungement in specific instances in which the Commission felt the candidate had extenuating circumstances which prevented them from meeting the standard deadline applied to all candidates for public office.
All committees, regardless if it is a candidate or Political Action Committee, are required to file yearly, monthly, weekly, daily, and major contribution reports to show Alabamians the source of all contributions, expenditures, and loans. The 2015 law required the Secretary of State to issue civil fines as listed below:
–1st Offense 10% of contributions or expenditures or $300 (whichever is less)
–2nd Offense 15% of contributions or expenditures or $600 (whichever is less)
–3rd Offense 20% of contributions or expenditures or $1,200 (whichever is less)
–4th Offense and all proceeding penalties are the same as the third offense but this activates our requirement to report the Candidate (PCC) or Political Action Committee (PAC) to the Attorney General and the District Attorney in the judicial circuit in which they reside.
When a committee files a report late, a comprehensive review process takes place to ensure that each penalty is legitimate and that the report in question is a required report for that candidate.
Step one involves one staff member of the Elections Division reviewing the late reports and preparing a file documenting the required reports and the violation number for the candidate or committee. That employee then delivers the penalty files to Clay Helms, the Assistant Elections Director and Supervisor of Voter Registration. Mr. Helms then reviews the files and corrects any errors before delivering the penalty files to John Bennett, Deputy Chief of Staff, who then reviews each penalty and checks the math on the amount of the civil fine. Once Mr. Bennett completes his review, he then delivers the penalty files to David Brewer, Chief of Staff, who then completes a final review. After Mr. Brewer’s review, he then delivers the penalty files to Brent Beal, Deputy Attorney General. Once signed, the letters are scanned and emailed to the email address on file for the PCC or PAC, and the original is mailed to the candidate via certified letter to ensure delivery.
This intensive review process ensures there is a system of checks and balances to protect candidates from unwarranted claims of impropriety.
As previously noted, a campaign committee can request an appeal if the committee believes extenuating circumstances caused them to not meet the deadline for filing their report. The appeal is reviewed by the Alabama Ethics Commission at their quarterly meetings.
The Ethics Commission held its first quarterly review of the fines against committees who had requested an appeal in December, and has held subsequent reviews in April and June. During each of those meetings the five member Ethics Commission voted to overturn all of the 54 requests for appeal that were submitted to the Commission for review for a total of 113 civil penalties. The fines were overturned based on concerns from the Commission that this law was a new law which campaigns could not be held responsible for accountability at this time.
The appeal process is in place for a candidate or committees first offense for which someone does not meet the standard as prescribed in state law. If they are a repeat offender, the law requires a monetary penalty be issued by the Secretary of State’s Office.
My question to members of the Ethics Commission, members of the media, and the people of Alabama is why do we pass ethics laws and employ an ethics commission if we do not intend to enforce the rule of law?
Further, the law was not established to function as an expensive, tax-payer funded, reminder to candidates who fail to timely file, but it was created to provide transparency on campaign contributions and expenses for all Alabamians to see and serve as a deterrent to candidates who wish to deceive voters by not providing evidence regarding the source of their campaign donations or expenditures.
Simply put, the Alabama Ethics Commission, like all other state agencies should follow the law, or ask the legislature to change it!
John Merrill is a Republican and the Secretary of State of Alabama