By Lee Hedgepeth
Alabama Political Reporter
Earlier this month, with the 2014 general elections exactly a year out, monthly campaign reports were due in the state. On the finance report due date, the Office of Attorney General Luther Strange issued an official legal opinion to a question posed to him by Secretary of State Jim Bennett: “Does the Secretary of State have authority to assess a civil penalty pursuant to section 17-9-19(d) of the Code of Alabama?”
The law Bennett inquired about is the legislation governing campaign finance practices in the state. The particular provision in question, both Bennett and Strange agree, requires the monthly finance reports described above, and assesses penalties for those who fail to report on time and in good faith.
Bennett, however, had questions on who should assess the fines– just as another report cycle finished up. The law does indeed say, in reference to the fines: “all penalties collected by the Secretary of State shall be directed to the State General Fund.”
Despite this language, Attorney General Luther Strange made clear in his official opinion that the power to fine campaigns and PACs for nonreporting lies in his hands, not in the Secretary of State’s. His statement, which includes the entire text of the Secretary of State’s constitutional duties, is several pages in length.
The penalties called for in the statute are set up as follows:
1st offense: The greater of either $500 or 10% of the amount not reported
2nd offense: $600 or 15%
3rd offense: $1200 or 20%
Of reports due this month, records indicate 9 campaigns filed late reports, with the worst offenders being Phillip Brown, Public Service Commission Place 2, and Mike Millican, HD17. 12 PACs filed late, with the worst players being the Alabama Realtors PAC and the Tuscaloosa County Republican Executive Committee.
With ethics problems on the front burner in the state, and the new election cycle ramping up quickly, campaign finance violations are sure to be more frequent and harder to spot. If the Attorney General intends to take this new power seriously, and by all indications he does, he has a big job ahead, hopefully not be distracted from if Strange finds himself in a campaign of his own.