More than a hundred politicians and political organizations owe the state Board of Elections nearly $5.4 million after failing to file financial election reports or filing them late. Officials acknowledge, however, that a considerable amount of the fines are uncollectable.

The amount grows each quarter, up 9 percent from a year ago when fines totaled about $4.6 million. 

Individual fines range from $5 to $514,859. The smallest fines are for those that have missed one or two filing deadlines, the largest for those that have ignored the requirements for years.

“Well over 95 percent is older debt,” said Richard Thornton, director of campaign finance. And when the Board of Elections has gone to court to recover funds, the courts, Thorton has said in the past, have reduced the fines substantially because they were considered not “proportional.”

The penalty for filing late is $25 for each reporting period, and $2 each day until the report is filed.

The higher fines involve individuals who have either failed to file forms for years or consistently file late.

Former Saunderstown State Sen. Patrick McDonald tops the list, owing to the state $514,859. McDonald was convicted in 2014 of embezzling $164,000 from law clients. Former state Sen. John Celona of North Providence, who was convicted of state and federal corruption charges in 2007, is fourth on the list, owing to the state $451,328. His last campaign finance filing 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 can 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 in collecting fines but believes the board needs to be more aggressive in the courts.

Thornton said the Board of Elections has been reaching out “proactively,” letting politicians and organizations know that the filing deadline is approaching, and if they miss it, sending out two notices, the second certified.

“We’re really successful with the bottom part of the list,” Thornton said. “Five or six years ago, 20 to 25 percent either filed late or did not file at all. Now it’s less than 10 percent.”

There have been a few board audits, in which agreements have been reached with violators. 

There are those that believe the state should ban violators from running for office, but that was rejected by the legislature a few years ago after Gov. Gina Raimondo had championed that effort.

Thornton said there are individuals on the list who hold public office. They are on the bottom of the list, but still owe the state for being late or failing to file forms. And some have sizeable campaign fund accounts like state Sen. Jean P. Barros, D-Dist. 59 of Pawtucket, a Deputy Majority Leader, vice-chair of the Municipal Government Committee, vice-chair 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 sizeable campaign fund balance is Sen. Thomas Paolino, R-Dist. 17 of Lincoln, North Providence, and North Smithfield, Deputy Minority Leader, and member of the committees on finance, education, health, and human services, and lottery, owes $225, with a campaign fund balance of $17,152. He was also an unsuccessful candidate in a special election last year for Lincoln Town Administration. 

To find the full list of fines, visit https://elections.ri.gov/fines/index.php, where you can also find past aging fines reports.

Frank Prosnitz

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.