Are Rhode Island’s Campaign Finance Laws tough enough?

Rhode Island State House

Over the last 15 years, since enactment of legislation levying fines in Rhode Island for delinquent campaign finance filings, only a small fraction of the fines has been paid, leaving in question the effectiveness of the process.

There appears to be little incentive for delinquent filers to make good on the fines, or even a portion of the fines since they are not criminally culpable nor are they prevented from running for office. A member of the Board of Elections suggested that the fear of negative public opinion may be the most effective way to persuade delinquent filers to settle their fines.

Efforts to recover fines in court were somewhat successful early on, but less so in recent years, with a Superior Court Judge invoking what Richard Thornton, the Board of Election’s Director of Campaign Finance, called the “doctrine of proportionality,” significantly decreasing the fines.

The Board, over the last 10 years, has been able to collect only $412,000, according to its records.

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Fines 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. For a full listing of fines, and to access individual campaign finance records, visit http://www.elections.state.ri.us/finance/.

The legislature has made some efforts to clean up the process but has fallen short of barring delinquent filers from either continuing in office or running for office.

The campaign finance filing process is designed to provide transparency into an aspect of the political activity that reveals influence and influencers, transcends typical campaign rhetoric and can be a barometer of who might curry favor with any sitting politician or candidate.

Campaign finance reports, along with what is considered strong ethics legislation are meant to provide some safeguard against political corruption. But John Marion, Executive Director of Common Cause, and Phil West, his immediate predecessor, agree that both are necessary to avoid abuse.

“Conflicts of interest, which the Ethics Commission regulates, are distinct from campaign finance abuses,” West said. “You could compare this to electrical and plumbing systems in a home. Both need to work properly to keep the place operating, but they involve different kinds of criteria and controls. Either system – or both – can be disrupted. Both need to be protected with strong laws and effective enforcement agencies.”

Asked whether the state was inviting abuse by not strengthening campaign finance regulations, Marion said “yes, we are inviting abuse. However, the Board of Elections has become more aggressive in enforcing campaign finance recently. That’s why we’ve seen indictments of Providence City Councilors Luis Aponte and (former) Kevin Jackson, among others. The Board seems to be taking this more seriously.”

If the Board is being more aggressive, it doesn’t show in the amount of fines collected. According to Board records, dating back to 2007, collections have been dropping. In 2016, for instance, the board collected $30,503.70 in fines, the second lowest over the 10-year period. In 2015, the board collected $29,776 in fines. The most collected was 2008 at $51,396.46 and in 2007 at $45,931.32. This year, 2017, will be a more robust year for collections, with $36,64.33 collected through September. The total amount collected over the last 10 years, according to the Board of Elections, is $411,989.35.

Neither Aponte nor Jackson were charged with crimes related to late campaign finance reporting. Aponte, who was Providence City Council President, was indicted earlier this year on charges of felony embezzlement and misuse of campaign funds. Thornton said the board suspected Aponte of using campaign funds for personal use, a charge unrelated to campaign finance filings. Campaign funds may only be used for personal political campaigns, donated to charity or another political candidate, or returned to donors.

Aponte, who pleaded innocent to the charges, resigned from the Council presidency but remains on the City Council. According to Board of Elections records, Aponte owes fines of $47,996 for failure to file campaign finance reports on time. He is among several officeholders who owe fines to the Board of Elections.

Jackson, who was the council’s majority leader, was charged with embezzling $127,153 from a youth track organization he led for decades, also not related to campaign finance reporting. He lost his council seat in a recall election.

We reached out to Gov. Gina Raimondo, Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Common Cause Executive Director John Marion, former Common Cause Executive Director Phil West, and The Board of Elections. Neither the governor nor the Senate President responded, despite several attempts. Thornton, at the Board of Elections, provided us with any materials we requested.

We submitted a series of questions, which were answered by Marion and West. Mattiello referred the questions to his spokesperson Larry Berman. Berman did no answer the questions directly, instead suggesting the House has been diligent tightening the campaign finance system, providing copies of five bills passed by the House.

“In the last three years, the House has passed into law five significant bills to tighten up the campaign finance system and hold candidates accountable,” Berman wrote. “The House is mindful that there needs to be appropriate checks and balances in order for the public to have confidence in the hard work that is done on their behalf.”

Marion said, however, that this past year Governor Raimondo introduced legislation that would “prohibit candidates from appearing on the ballot if they owed outstanding fines of a certain amount to the Board of Elections. While it passed the state Senate, it did not advance in the House.”

The bills referenced by Berman/Mattiello provide guidance for the disposition of remaining campaign funds of a candidate or officeholder that has died; recognizes political action committees and political parties as lawful recipients of minimal cash contributions, and eliminates aggregate contribution limits, while adding a prohibition on earmarked contributions

Also, require candidates and political action committees to file copies of bank statements from their campaign accounts; requires candidates and political action committees to maintain separate campaign accounts exclusively for campaign funds; and requires the appointment of a treasurer for a candidate’s campaign, once the account reaches or exceeds $10,000.

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Frank Prosnitz brings to WhatsUpNewp several years in journalism, including 10 as editor of the Providence (RI) Business News and 14 years as a reporter and bureau manager at the Providence (RI) Journal. Prosnitz began his journalism career as a sportswriter at the Asbury Park (NJ) Press, moving to The News Tribune (Woodbridge, NJ), before joining the Providence Journal. Prosnitz hosts the Morning Show on WLBQ radio (Westerly), 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday, and It’s Your Business, also on WBLQ, Monday and Tuesday, 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. Prosnitz has twice won Best in Business Awards from the national Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW), twice was named Media Advocate of the Year by the Small Business Administration, won an investigative reporter’s award from the New England Press Association, and newswriting award from the Rhode Island Press Association.