Secretary Merrill: Ethics Commission undermined campaign finance law

December 6, 2017

By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

The law doesn’t matter if you try harder not to break it the next time, according to the Alabama Ethics Commission.

Earlier this week, the five-person commission voted 4-1 to dismiss fines levied by the Alabama Secretary of State’s office for the late filing of required campaign finance reports by six political action committees (PACs) and candidates.

In those cases, the fact that the reporting law had been violated was not in question — one had missed the deadline by more than a month, another took nearly a month. The PACs and candidates who appealed their fines to the Commission were clearly in violation of the reporting deadlines.

But because none of the six violated the law after being assessed a fine for their initial violations, the Commission determined that the initial fines weren’t necessary.

“I feel like these people learned their lesson because they didn’t do it again,” said commissioner Butch Ellis, as he made the motion to dismiss the fines. Chairman Jerry Fielding and commissioners Charles Price and John Plunk voted with Ellis. Commissioner Beverlye Brady voted against the motion, saying she felt that the Commission didn’t have the authority to override the Legislature.

Secretary of State John Merrill was, to put it mildly, unhappy.

“This sends a terrible message that if you’re somebody or you know somebody, you have a way out of following the laws everyone else has to follow,” Merrill said. “I’m just so terribly disappointed in this decision and I don’t know what effect it might have on people following this law. It can’t be good, I know that.”

The law in question, passed by the Legislature in 2015 to take effect in the 2018 election cycle — requires that candidates and PACs periodically submit campaign finance reports that detail donations and expenditures. Currently, for the 2018 election cycle, reports are due monthly.

Brent Beal, a deputy attorney general for Alabama, told the Commission that there was no wiggle room in opposing fines, because the law spells out how and when fines should be assessed by Merrill’s office for those who miss filing deadlines.

“It actually says the Secretary of State shall impose a fine (for missing the deadlines),” Beal said during Monday’s hearing.

That fine is $300 or 10 percent, whichever is less, for first offenses. So far, out of hundreds of PACs and candidates filing reports, just 86 have failed to meet the reporting deadlines. Of those, 35 warranted only a warning from Merrill’s office, while 51 received fines.

Only six of those 51 filed appeals with the Ethics Commission. And they were successful.

“After such a ruling, why would anyone think that anyone would pay a fine or follow the law?” Merrill asked. “It’s really discouraging when you think about what might happen because of this.”

 

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