The likelihood of the Rhode Island Board of Elections collecting even a small portion of the $3.6 million owed in election fines is slim, according to a Board of Elections official.
“Much of that is bad debt, not collectable,” said Richard Thornton, the board’s Director of Campaign Finance. As of July 31, according to Board of Elections records, $3,621,572 was owed the elections board by candidates and politically affiliated organizations.
Efforts to collect the debt in the past, Thornton said, have included law suits, where the settlement has been far less than the fines owed, plus phone calls and letters.
Thornton said the Board had some success with law suits filed in 2004 and 2005, but fines owed were considerably less then, since the program of assessing fines for late or no filings only began in 2002. Candidates and political organizations involved in fundraising and campaign finance expense are generally required to file quarterly reports to the Board of Elections.
A later court effort, some 10 years later, resulted in much different results, Thornton said. A Superior Court judge ruled that the fines owed were not proportionate to the activity in the politicians’ accounts. Thornton called it the “doctrine of proportionality.”
Fines begin to accumulate daily once a candidate or political organization misses the filing deadline. For some of the 200 plus individuals and organizations on the aging fines list, those fines date back a decade or more.
Some of the candidates that owe fines, also show a balance remaining in their campaign fund accounts, but unless they close out their accounts, the board has no way of verifying if those funds remain, Thornton said.
Money remaining in a campaign account cannot be used for personal expenses, Thornton said. Funds may be held for a future campaign, donated to other candidates, donated to charity, or returned to donors.
A former state Senator from Saunderstown, Patrick McDonald, who was convicted of embezzlement in 2014 and sentenced to 20 years in prison (four and a half to serve), is the leading debtor, owing to the state $302,852. He has not filed a campaign finance report since 2002, with his last report showing a balance of $1,825. Thornton said he did not know if the funds were still in McDonald’s account, or how they may have been used.
Former North Providence state Senator John Celona, who spent time in prison for influence peddling, owes $256,893, while his last campaign finance report filing in 2003 shows a balance of $53,554.80. Thornton said Celona’s records were seized by the FBI,
Michael James Rollins is second on the list at $259,430, but there are no details about his campaign finances, as is the case with Peter M. Russo, Jr., who owes $258,177 in fines.
For a full listing of fines, and to access individual campaign finance records, visit http://www.elections.state.ri.us/finance/.